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How Christmas day hurts our brains

06 December 2021 - Dr Jan Orman

Modern imaging techniques enable us to know specific details about the functioning of various parts of the brain. Those areas can be seen to “light up” when specific stimuli are applied. There’s something slightly voyeuristic about it – like peeking behind a drawn curtain – but many people find this knowledge both fascinating and comforting.

The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) seems to be the part of the brain that is central to high level processing of uncertainty, so it’s been lighting up a lot recently. It also processes complex social stimuli such as moral reasoning, autobiographical memory retrieval and recognising complex social judgement in facial and auditory stimuli. You can see that Christmas and other family functions are likely to provide the dmPFC with some significant challenges.

Here's the sort of situation that lights up your dmPFC

Think about your best friend whom you love dearly. They are just like family to you. They are funny, clever, socially aware, kind, compassionate, generous and loving. Recently, over dinner, they said something about the evolutionary impact of Covid not being such a bad thing - given that the antivaxxers would be the first to go. You were shocked! How could someone you admired so much hold such an unconscionable position!

It's likely that your dmPFC is still lighting up whenever you think about this conversation. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. It comes with an urge to do something to change their mind. It also comes with a desire to totally rethink your views of them as a person. You might even be thinking about whether you need to change your own mind to come closer to their ideas. It’s very complicated and uncomfortable.

It’s so much easier to stay in our bubbles

Recognising that discomfort helps us understand why most of us huddle in bubbles of like-minded friends. It’s just too hard to think of someone you love and admire holding views that you find unacceptable, especially if the issue is emotionally charged. Unfortunately hiding in bubbles has its own negative consequences, the amplification of misinformation being just one example.

Since we cannot choose our relatives, our family members may not be people who fit well into our comfort bubbles. We all try to protect ourselves from the jarring effect of dmPFC activity but those efforts at personal protection fall down at family functions like Christmas, when we are thrown together with people we love, whose views do not necessarily coincide with ours.

Those of us who have families who all agree on politics and religion, childrearing techniques (eg. how much money should be spent on presents) and even how to cook the Christmas pork, are very lucky. Most of us have experienced the special Christmas conflict that arises when people who love each other but have different views about emotionally charged subjects get together. That dmPFC has a lot of work to do during the holidays!

Strategies, strategies….

I don’t know anybody who doesn’t need to put things in place to make family functions like Christmas work smoothly. From compromising on what to cook for lunch (cold-climate traditionalists vs seafood afficionados), to dealing with the pressure from the kids’ in-laws to uphold their traditions rather than our own.

Then there’s the after-lunch conversations fuelled by a little beer or red wine perhaps, when Aunty Jo (unionist, social activist and vocal labour supporter) has to be kept away from Grandpa who’s voted for the “Country party” all his life and doesn’t believe that climate change is a problem.  Grandpa’s sister June also needs to be kept busy in the kitchen lest she and Grandpa decide to reminisce about a shared past that each remembers differently.

You can see how everyone’s dmPFC is working overtime here!

It can sound cute and funny, but those sorts of disagreements can end in tears, and in some cases violence, if action isn’t taken to avoid them. At the extreme end there are some families who probably just shouldn’t get together at all – at least not all of them at once. But, short of cancelling Christmas, there are many things that we can do to make it work.

What do you think of this list of ideas?

  • make it short (decide on a finish time or a departure time and stick to it)
  • spread Christmas over several days,
  • make it simple,
  • limit the alcohol provided,
  • agree on some ground rules in advance (eg. spending limits, no-go conversational topics)
  • plan some activities (eg. family cricket matches, party games)

Let’s give our brains a break this holiday by planning ahead instead of just keeping our fingers crossed. Hopefully we will then feel good enough about them look forward to seeing our families again next Christmas.

Further reading


Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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