The following article was originally published in the Washington Post & written by Dr. Kelly Lambert. No link to the article is provided as the article has been taken down, but the previous link is to Dr. Lambert’s website.
As I look out the window to my sunny backyard & leafy avocado & banana trees, no one knows more than I that it ain’t Christmas. However, as some parts of the world are still in a deep freeze & as I’m always a sucker for interesting neuroscience (aka how our gray matter works) I thought you might like a little time travel of your own…
I’ll never forget that December day 12 years ago, and the family holiday crisis I so narrowly averted. I had spent the morning at my office writing a neuroscience textbook, and was looking forward to returning home to spend some time with my 3- and 7-year-old daughters, Skylar and Lara. But the news I received from my husband as I walked through the door was devastating. The girls had been exploring in the attic — a space I’d thought was the perfect hiding place for Santa’s gifts. It was more than a week before Christmas and they had just seen their presents!
I’m not sure where it came from, but some maternal lobe in my brain immediately became activated, and I morphed into Santa’s legal counsel. “I was afraid this would happen!” I told the girls. I went on to explain that Santa had contacted all the parents whose kids were expecting bulky gifts that year and shared that he was having back problems. Mrs. Claus had insisted that Santa send some of those gifts ahead of time via U.P.S. so he wouldn’t be in so much pain delivering them on Christmas Eve.
But there was a condition to this agreement. I had to sign a contract stating that I would not, under any circumstances, let my children see the gifts before Santa had a chance to set them out on Christmas Eve. If the children saw the gifts, they would have to be sent back.
“NO! NO!” cried my girls. “We … we only saw a few of them. We don’t even remember them.”
I told them that I was probably going to get in legal trouble but I would send only a few back and keep those they hadn’t seen. After serious consultation, we all agreed this was a good plan. I took a deep breath and continued decorating the house.
In addition to being a mom, I am a behavioral neuroscientist, a professor and a generally serious-minded, reality-based person. So what in the world had I just done? Why did I invent this incredible story in a desperate bid to protect my daughters’ belief in Santa, instead of seizing it as a teachable moment to tell them the truth?
While it may seem that I had abandoned my scientific training, nothing could be further from the truth.
Although children are born with a full set of 86-billion brain cells, or neurons, the connections between these neurons are relatively sparse during these early years. As their brains develop — as more and more micro-thread extensions form between neurons, and neurochemicals zap across the tiny gaps — children slowly learn about the rules of the physical world, and the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. Eventually, they learn that reindeer can’t fly, that Santa can’t visit every child’s home in one single night and, even if he could make such a trip, there’s no way he could eat all those cookies. Magical beliefs are pruned away as mature neural circuits reflecting real-world contingencies become solidified.
Because my holiday memories were consolidated at a time when my brain effortlessly conjured up images of flying reindeer, I still feel a bit of that Christmas magic when I encounter holiday sights, smells and sounds
Luckily, however, we don’t completely lose those old ways of thinking, because the brain appears to retain a mechanism for neural time travel. By this, I don’t simply mean that adults have warm memories of having believed in Santa Claus. Pascal Boyer, a professor of memory at Washington University in St. Louis, differentiates between what he refers to as episodic memories — the first time we sat on Santa’s knee or the year a blizzard knocked out the electricity — and mental time travel memories, or M.T.T. These come closer to re-experiencing a remembered event. Professor Boyer describes how neuroimaging evidence indicates that, when certain events are recalled — presumably after being triggered by familiar sights, smells or sounds — emotional brain areas are activated as well as visceral responses. You relive the feelings you experienced in the past. These recollections can be thought of as full body and brain memories.
This can be traumatic, as it is likely to be for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Or it can be more mundane. Imagine that someone had a chili dog before riding a roller coaster and then got sick. For years, he may be overcome by nausea whenever he encounters a chili dog — even if he knows perfectly well it was the motion of the ride that made him ill. When the brain considers something to be important, it is difficult to extinguish its responses to conditioned memories. Thankfully, it can happen for happy memories as well.