Christmas is cognitive therapy…

Merry Christmas Brain

You might not realise it, but Christmas is cognitive therapy. It’s not obvious at first because, once you reach a certain age (normally by the time you’ve got a couple of children and older relatives to cater for) Christmas loses its shine a bit. The mind boggling excitement of Santa leaving presents in a stocking, or under the tree, gives way to stress. You’ll hear people talk of Christmas in terms that make it sound like a crisis using words like “madness”, “rush” and “chaos” to describe the experience of preparing for the Festive Season. It’s unlike any other kind of holiday because it’s become a mass scale event, which means most people in your social and work environments are all talking about the same thing.

Christmas (and New Year celebrations) may also be considered as one of the first mass use thinking tools, so in celebration of the season, let’s do a bit of Man Vs Brain on how to use Christmas to change the way you make decisions during the rest of the year…


’Tis the season to be Jolly

The core concept of Christmas is not, as the name suggests, a celebration of the birth of Christ. Obviously, that’s the key theme that shapes the cultural story of Christmas, however dig a little deeper and you’ll find that a celebration in the depths of winter around the turning of the year predates Christianity. The pagan celts and Britons celebrated the Green Man (a sort of leafy Santa) the Romans celebrated Saturnalia (Saturn being boozy, party dude) and you’ll find variations on that theme of living it up a bit in the midst of the dark, cold time of year.

So if you take the specific cultural narrative that explains why we’re celebrating out of the equation, you are left with something else. Organised social behaviour plays a role in psychological wellbeing. More importantly, organised behaviour affects our mood and decision making.

It’s what psychologists refer to as Behavioural Activation in a branch of clinical psychology called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT. It works on addressing the three pillars of your mental wellbeing: Emotional state, thinking style and behaviour. The therapy works by realising that if you change one of those things, that will change the other two. This means at a very basic level, if someone has psychological issues (like feeling anxious or depressed) getting them to alter their behaviour or visualise their problems in a different way will help them feel better. It’s very effective for problems where the therapies that try to address the problem directly aren’t working.

In the case of the winter celebrations (which all tend to share roots localised around the colder climates of Europe) we can identify one common thread that ties Christmas into our lives, namely the need to refresh our positive affect, or in basic terms, remind ourselves that our experience of life follows a similar natural rhythm to the changing of the seasons themselves in so far as there are ups and downs. Things get brighter and warmer as well as getting colder and darker inside your head as well as outside your window.

In terms of how we think, this large scale social behaviour changes our expectations of social interactions. This is a learned behaviour, also known as a social control (see more on social controls here). At a basic level, when everyone is in a party mood we’re expected by others (and expect ourselves) to change our behaviour to be more positive and social. It’s a form of mass scale behavioural activation, and it’s an evolutionary imperative. After all, humans are dependent on social behaviour and society to thrive, so we naturally develop social behaviours that encourage social cohesion in order to ensure the survival of our genes. In the same way we’ve always had celebrations, dancing, performances and so on. It’s all basically happening because we want to keep warm, eat and reproduce.

This notion of the winter celebration, and a season where we behave more altruistically towards one another is deeply ingrained in our culture. Perhaps this is best explained by Ebenezer Scrooge, who is singled out in popular culture (and in the story A Christmas Carrol by Charles Dickens, by supernatural forces) as a social misfit because he doesn’t allow the season of Christmas to influence his behaviour and soften his attitude to others.

Scrooge and specifically the manner in which he is universally identifiable as a negative character is a classic example of social controls at work. There is no logical reason for us to judge his behaviour as antisocial, selfish or miserly based on his behaviour during the Christmas period. He’s all of those things in the spring, summer and autumn as well, however when we view those behaviours in the context of Christmas (when we all expect a more caring behavioural norm) it plays to our primitive behaviour to isolate and ostracise social rule breakers. Try this test, compare the following concepts:

A Summer Song: A story about a man who is a miser and a misanthrope who is visited by ghosts during a warm summer night who show him visions of summer past, summer present and summer future and get him to change his ways to be a better employer and nicer person.

A Christmas Carol: A story about a man who is a miser and a misanthrope who is visited by Ghosts on Christmas Eve who show him visions of Christmas past, Christmas present and Christmas future and get him to change his ways to be a better employer and nicer person.

Of those two synopsis, the Christmas themed one seems to make more sense. That’s because the miserly behaviour is accented by your social controls, a learned behaviour that means you expect people to nicer during the winter, and concomitantly judge antisocial behaviour differently depending on the time of year… which is illogical but nevertheless, feels perfectly normal.

Christmas lights

There is, of course, a neurochemical explanation of the need to address our affect (mood) too. We get less light in the winter, in particular less high frequency blue light – the wavelength of natural daylight that stimulates the production of serotonin in our brains and wakes us up – because of the tilt of the Earth. As the Earth orbits furthest from the Sun and due to its axis, the northern hemisphere is angled furthest away from direct overhead sunlight (DNI or Direct Nominal Irradiance) and the light we receive from the sun is subject to a high level of DFI (or Diffuse Horizontal Irradiance), which blocks light. As an interesting aside, this also means solar panels in the northern hemisphere are also much less efficient when it’s cloudy, polluted and during the winter. So our brains are less stimulated due to the lower production of Serotonin (the neurotransmitter than stimulates activity).

In extreme cases, some people react badly to this reduction in Serotonin and develop a depressive condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) but generally speaking, everyone gets a bit lower during the winter. So the idea of a winter celebration starts to make sense as a therapeutic social behaviour. Without the full levels of natural stimulation caused by blue light in our brains, we can use our behaviour to address our psychological health. Organising and throwing a party, with lashings of food derived chemicals like sugar, fat and alcohol, plus physical stimulation provided by dancing, laughter and romance, is a means to top-up the neurochemical balance of our brains and the depressive effect it has on our thinking processes.

This shows how Christmas behavioural activation isn’t purely a psychological effect driven by evolutionary imperatives, it’s also a natural result of our brains wanting more serotonin when it gets low, which is a bit like feeling hungry in your brain.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Men

A party in the middle of the dark and cold helps to partly rebalance our neurochemistry, and organised social behaviour changes our expectations of social interactions. So we have two cognitive tools at Christmas that give us a chance to change our decision making processes. At this point, the Christian story of the nativity starts to make sense as a third cognitive process, specifically, the focus on the concept of peace and goodwill.

Interestingly, peace and goodwill are constraints on our behaviour, they are more social controls at work. However, unlike with Scrooge, they’re don’t promote a positive affect but quite the reverse, promote restraint. You see, when pagan cultures got together for their winter party things could get out of hand. Sex, violence, overindulgence and so on were common features of pre-Christian winter celebrations and if you look at incidents of drug and alcohol related violence during the Christmas period you’ll see that when we all get together and have a good time… shit inevitably happens.

We have a tendency to make bad decisions when we’re overstimulated, our emotional states become more volatile and we’re more inclined to choose based on emotional factors rather than logic and reason. We get excited, horny, angry, morose and everything inbetween. So the narrative of Christmas evolved a cultural filter to encourage certain kinds of self-moderation that fitted with the moral outlook of the early church. You can test this by comparing the following recreational activities:

  1. Having your friends round for a meal and a party, where you stay up late and get drunk, sing songs and so on
  2. Staying up all night doing coke and playing Call of Duty on the internet.
  3. Taking a candlelit bath, going to bed early and curling up with a good book and a mug of cocoa, alone.
  4. Meditating with a group of friends at a yoga centre.
  5. Dancing naked around a fire having an orgy.

Of those five alternatives, only the first one feels festive. The solitary activities don’t resonate because they’re not social, the yoga and the orgy are social but again, we intuitively feel they’re lacking the Christmas spirit. What we’re seeing here is a categorisation of a specific type of recreation being appropriate for Christmas. None of the others can’t happen at Christmas and each might equally fulfil the behavioural activation element of the winter celebration and fix your serotonin levels. However because of the Christmas narrative, we’ll self-moderate our choices to favour the one which feels like it’s got the right kind of celebration format. It’s the season to be jolly, not get your rocks off.

What’s in Santa’s Sack? Self-validation and emotional expression…

Naturally one of the biggest things that defines Christmas is the giving of gifts. In fact, it’s the one aspect of Christmas that’s the source of the most criticism because the commercialism that accompanies the season feels like it’s submerged the real meaning of peace and goodwill. However the giving of gifts is something very important for our psychological health because giving a gift is a way of externalising two unconscious needs, namely emotional expression and self validation.

You see, giving someone a gift at a time when everyone is giving everyone else a gift is a very easy way to express your feelings towards them. In modern times, this is less of an issue because our lives are less formal and the social norms (or social controls) of emotional expression are fairly relaxed. But if you roll the clock back fifty years, to a time when men didn’t hug and people seldom made outward shows of affection in public, telling someone you loved them wasn’t a common event. The social norms for formality meant friends, colleagues and neighbours might often call each other by their surnames rather than christian names. People would be referred to as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’. Children might rarely get kisses and hugs from fathers and so on.

In a world with those sorts of formal social rules, the giving of a gift embodied a physical mechanism whereby emotion could be conveyed without making an interpersonal emotional display. And even today, the giving of gifts is still a vehicle to express a personal, human emotional connection. The giving of a gift is a way to externalise something internal, namely our feelings. It’s a way to express emotions without having to vocalise them which is a universal mechanism that means people who find it difficult to express their feelings can express them.

Of course, it’s not wholly selfless. It’s also a healthy mechanism for affirming your own potency as a human being. By giving someone a gift and making them react positively, you feel good about yourself and get a nice reminder that your life has a positive affect.

The giving and receiving of gifts promotes social cohesion, and combined with the mass psychology of the winter festival, all helps to stimulate your brain with positive thinking processes.

And a Happy New Year…

Finally, we end the psychological Christmas journey with more externalisation in the form of New Year. More to the point, how it’s traditional to mark the changing of the year with some kind of personal journey in the form of New Year’s resolutions. This is, of course, highly illogical. If you want to change your life you can do it anytime. You could start getting into shape, or quit smoking, or eat healthy, or read more books (or whatever your resolutions are this year) right now. This minute. Today, whatever time of year it is. But instead, for many of us, we locate the stimulus for life change around the New Year.

Now obviously, this is more learned social behaviour, mass psychology and behavioural activation at work, but it’s got more in common with the giving of gifts. By making resolutions around the date, we externalise a number of psychological processes.

1. We set a date to change, creating a physical, external point at which we have to act. Simply put, you can’t put off the New Year. When we resolve to act differently after that date, we’re more inclined to stick with it because it can’t be put off. It’s a way of unconsciously dealing with the fact our willpower can fail for all kinds of reasons, so by assigning a date to an elective decision, we’re more inclined to stick to it.

2. The concept of a New Year implies a fresh start. It changes our focus from giving something up, to making a new beginning, starting over, getting a second chance. It allows us to emotionally weight the change in behaviour with a whole bunch of positive attributes that mitigate the thing we are losing or changing that we currently do.

3. Because everyone else will be doing it at the same time, we’re less anxious about having to explain the change in our behaviour. We now have a handy all purpose reason to explain why we’re eating salad or going jogging, rather than say “Well I’ve got body image issues over my weight” we can say “it’s my New Year’s Resolution” and everyone is fine with that.

4. Giving things up is hard, so the fact we’ve set a date for it after we’ve had a big over indulgence means we can feel better about giving it up by doing it to excess before we do. When I quit smoking like that, I smoked like a chimney non-stop until January 1st, which made me feel better about giving up.

Merry Christmas

When I was discussing this essay with a psychologist buddy of mine, they summed it all up very succinctly:

“It’s all about a cognitive shift in your focus. If you always look down into the mud, your thoughts are dominated by mud. If you shift your focus up to the sky, your thoughts move away from the mud and into a better place. It’s a very simple thing, really, but incredibly powerful. Changing your behaviour changes your thinking style and changes your emotional state, and changing one of the other two changes your behaviour. It’s a very powerful technique for addressing your feelings and outlook on life, that’s what Christmas does despite the stress it causes.”

So as you face the prospect of cooking, drinking, shopping, writing cards, rushing about and so on and inevitably find yourself anxiously questioning the point of it or lamenting the loss of the real spirit of Christmas in the face of so much unbridled commercialism, remember that your brain knows what it’s doing. Not just that, but your behaviour is part of something much broader than your own personal Christmas chaos, it’s part of your whole community self-regulating and self-adjusting their brains to get better at being together all year round.

In a strange way, the process of Christmas really is about peace and goodwill… it just turns out it’s less about the words and more about the effects of experiencing all the same crap as everyone else, at the same time. Come the New Year, you’ll look back and see it all differently because your memories will reshape the experience of stress and chaos and make it a great Christmas, more or less. And make the New Year seem like something more exciting and positive than it seems before Christmas.

And spare a thought for your children, because unlike yourself, some of them actually believe a stranger with supernatural powers is going to invade their home and interfere with their stuff on Christmas Eve, whilst they’re asleep. And oddly, they actually think this is a good thing.

So Merry Christmas to you and your awesome brain. See you in the New Year…