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Your Brain on Joy

The Wonders of Christmas for the Brain

‘Tis the season of Joy. And, that’s a good thing for your brain.

When you experience joy, the brain chemical dopamine is released. At this time of year, it flows in great abundance.

You are walking around in the Christmas season in a recurring state of good spirits. I mention Christmas, because that’s in my tradition, but there are many other wonderful holidays this time of year.

The Anticipation of Joy

A large part of these positive good spirits is in anticipation of good things to come. If you are in the mode, you anticipate the joy, and the dopamine is released, and then you feel the joy.

You feel it again in anticipation of being generous to other people, and yet again in anticipation of your loved ones being generous to you. It’s just a joyful time for everyone concerned.

The Role of Family Traditions

We all have family traditions that have been practiced for years …or even generations.

The holidays are a wonderful benchmark in our year, in which we collectively remind ourselves that we are connected to our little tribe.

We are designed neurologically to be connected to one another; we are designed to attach to one another; and to grow people who are close to us into the person we are.

Now, we are going to be with those people. We’ll be sharing our history and a long list of often bizarre things that our little tribe associates with this holiday. We look forward so much to the positive vibes from practicing those special traditions. And… the dopamine flows, some more.

Caption: Dr. Merzenich is interviewed in the above video about Your Brain on Joy

Christmas Can Be Difficult, Too

The holidays are not a joyful time for everyone.

Often negative sentiments are more than justified. There can be memories of disappointing and difficult times. There can be lots of reasons you want nothing to do with the holidays.

In those circumstances, maybe the best thing to do is to establish a new tradition for the holidays. You may want to go to the beach and sit under an umbrella and say this is my new tradition.

Christmas Folklore

Part of what comes with lots of holidays is folklore…stories. At this time of year, things like flying reindeer, and elves making toys, and Santa Claus. There is a lesson in all of that about our brains.

Our brains are pretty easily fooled, especially when the stories come from good sources. I mean Grandma not only says reindeer flies, she even knows them by name.

We all carry around with us a whole series of Santa-like stories in our brains that are not completely validated and that can dominate our lives until we find out the truth – or, regrettably, never find out the truth.

That’s the kind of search for truth that may drive you to become a scientist.

In fact, I still remember the moment when I discovered Santa Claus was a fraud! However, I have to tell you I still love the guy… and the holiday.

Merry Christmas!

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