It’s possible that the winter holidays turn all of us into Yuletide believers by making us addicts — albeit the kind that probably gets by just fine, and doesn’t have to resort to breaking into cars or sleeping in shelters.
The process begins at an impressionable young age, when the build-up of holiday decorations and music and presents amps kids up into knots of all-consuming anticipation. This mix of expectation and fairytale fantasy triggers their brains into churning out the reward chemical dopamine — to an extent that makes a lifelong impression.
Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, said in a 2011 lecture that “dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness, rather than happiness itself.”
In an experiment with monkeys, Sapolsky was able to detect the fluctuation of dopamine levels in their brains based on a work-reward regimen. A light signal would prompt the monkey to do task, which resulted in a food reward. Contrary to general expectation, he found that dopamine levels went up when the light signal turned on rather than when the food reward was delivered.
When Sapolsky altered the arrangement so that a reward was given only half of the time after completing the task, the monkey’s dopamine levels went "through the roof.” This response, he explained, occurred because “you just introduced the word ‘maybe’ into the equation. And ‘maybe’ is addictive like nothing else out there.”
Does this sound familiar? A kid asks their parent for a certain something for the holidays, only to get a big, tantalizing ‘maybe.’ And if the requested gift is a long-shot, that’s all the more thrilling — and addicting. This is why many people are hooked on gambling.
It’s possible immensely pleasurable holiday moments at a receptive young age turn many of us into victims of conditioned learning, and we re-live this thrill whenever we encounter circumstances that remind us of them. Like heroin addicts who see a needle, maybe a flood of memories surface when we encounter the mood, situation, people and places reminiscent of the moments that provided the powerful holiday highs so long ago.
Kelly Lambert, a professor of neuroscience at Randolph-Macon College, recently described this powerful surge of memory as “mental time travel” in the New York Times. “From my own childhood, all those years of reciting Twas the Night Before Christmas, smelling fir trees, and going to bed with all the anticipation of a cocaine addict about to get the biggest hit of her life have become a part of my brain’s permanent holiday infrastructure,” she observed.
Lambert pointed out that, yes, kids eventually learn that reindeer can’t fly and Santa can’t possibly visit billions of homes in one night. From a neuro-scientific perspective, she writes, “Magical beliefs are pruned away as mature neural circuits reflecting real-world contingencies become solidified.”
But, she adds, our brains still hold on to the emotional and visceral response we experienced when we were kids, which can launch us back into those youthful, starry-eyed shoes whenever we find ourselves in an enchanting holiday moment again.