Excitement: What's happening in our brain?

22 December 2017

Interview with

Philipe Bujold, University of Cambridge

Children running

Children running

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It's all getting rather exciting and Christmas wouldn’t really be Christmas without the kids being up at the crack of dawn with excitement! Georgia Mills was joined by Psychologist, Philipe Bujold, who explained why we look forward to the big day. 

Philipe - The short answer to that is that it’s all about memories. I was saying earlier that in December, it’s basically an entire process of remembering and anticipating what Christmas is going to be. It’s a reference-dependent system if you want. And the whole idea of Christmas is basically in your head. When you think about it December is amazing, but then when it comes to Christmas Day itself, it’s never as hyped up as what you’ve painted it be.

Chris - I think that’s the hangover, Philipe, that’s partly to blame isn’t it?

Philipe - After Christmas or?

Chris - Yeah. Do you not have that problem?

Philipe - I can’t say I have, unfortunately, but everybody’s looking at me oddly so maybe I’m the only one. The big principle you have to know about the brain is that cells that fire together, wire together and that means that, basically, every cell in your brain that fires at the same time at some point will be associated. It’s a very simplistic way of looking at the brain but that’s a bit of how memories work. So, whenever you hear a choir singing you’ll think about your childhood memories, you’ll think about the pleasure that gave you, and all of these circuits are firing and that’s what Christmas is. You’re remembering all these things and you’re anticipating it which means that dopamine is firing, and dopamine is actually very exciting.

What happens is that children have an amazing dopamine response. And this dopamine response is actually uncontrollable by the rest of the brain that’s developing. So children look crazy at Christmas, and they are actually going crazy because they just can’t contain this dopamine.

Chris - So it’s not just the E numbers?

Philipe - It’s not just E numbers, no. It’s really your children are going nuts!

Georgia - I do remember driving my parents nuts because I’d wake up at about 4am on Christmas like is it ready to start the day yet? Why does this make it hard to sleep; why do people sort of wake up really early with excitement?

Philip - Dopamine’s main effect, like I was saying, is anticipation. You’re predicting a reward and then you’re going to get a tiny prediction error which is basically going to correct your prediction via this dopamine signal, and this influences your attention. It’s going to wake up your brain to make sure that you’re planning and predicting as best as you could so it’s always going to tone down the sleepy parts of your brain, if you want. Then, especially for children, they have to infer everything that’s going to happen, whereas we have the advantage of having lived before and having memories that we can use to compute this prediction.

So children actually need to use their dopamine and the crazy amount of attention which wakes up their brain, so that’s probably why you were awake at 4am in the morning.

Georgia - Not any more; 4pm now I think I get up. When we’re sort of excited for Christmas it also can be quite a stressful day, I suppose. What’s going on in our brain with that as well?

Philipe - Anticipation is great but, unfortunately, something that happens, like you said, is stress. Stress, a result of it is going to be because of release of adrenaline, of cortisol. And that happens when we’re meeting family, that happens when we have to think about gifts, and that’s actually a really big stressor. It going to stop you from sleeping and it’s also toning your ability to recall, and your memory’s a bit lower also. So the stress is going to be a big issue for those people that are trying to buy all their gifts at the same time, that are going to try and remember all of their family names.

Chris - Especially if the mother-in-law’s coming over. That will be a big driver for cortisol stress hormone release!

Philipe - Yes.

Georgia - So get your presents in advance. Don’t forget your mother-in-law’s name. Any other tips for avoiding stress at Christmas?

Philip - Yes. If you can make a list of the things you have to do. That way you don’t have to remember them, because we can only remember at one time about 6 to 7 things that we can process actively. So try to make a list and that way you can remember or use a service that finds gifts for you.

Georgia - So make a list and check it twice!

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