Your amygdala is a tiny, almond-shaped sensory receptor that lives in your temporal lobe. You wouldn’t know it was there until the moment you hear the first line of a song you haven’t heard since high school, and suddenly you remember all the words you thought were long forgotten. Not just the words, but the smell of the school gym where it played during practice. The splash of the water as it blasted at the public pool. You remember the ache in your shoulder from when you fell listening to it at the roller skating rink on a date with... wait, what was their name? You wouldn’t think of your amygdala until you catch the bouquet of freshly roasting garlic and you’re transported to your grandmother’s kitchen and you suddenly feel a little homesick.
Your amygdala is responsible for connecting senses with memories, and the slightest stimulation of this tiny cluster works as a virtual time-machine, transporting you to the day that memory was planted.
Once the holidays are over, though, it’s not the stress we’ll remember. It won’t matter that we had to use Scentsy candles because the Menorah just couldn’t be found. Nobody is going to bring up the fact that your children weren’t all in matching sweaters and suspenders. I promise you that they’ll even forget if dinner was over-cooked, over-salted, or gluten free. What they’re going to remember are the sounds of the people they love, laughing around a table. Even if it’s a table full of dry turkey and lumpy gravy.
Anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas of the University of Connecticut has researched and published work positing that every culture since the dawn of humanity has relied on rituals to create a sense of closeness and community. A ritual prepares your brain to record the memory. It won’t record the anxiety of preparing for the event, but everything during and immediately following the ritual.
Do you ever wonder why, when it seems so stressful to prepare, you continue to perform these rituals year after year? Your brain records the reward, not the work that got you there.
This means that even your ancestors roasting dodo over an open fire gathered around the cave to give thanks to and for one another. They likely gave one another a hard time about their hunting and gathering skills, who they were dating, and their college major while they were at it, but for that meal, they were family! These warm memories created stronger tribes and communities and planted the seed in every generation that followed. Your rituals may look different from theirs, and even from the rituals you were raised with, but each generation has found their own way to connect to the moment.
Whether your family lives down the street or across the country, exploring holiday rituals together will keep you closer, no matter the miles!
So in all the hustle and bustle of the season, be sure that you’re taking time to let your amygdala do its job. Breathe deeply and immerse yourself in the smells, even the burned cookie smell! Take a drive around this beautiful city and appreciate the homes that lit themselves up for your enjoyment. You won’t remember the cold of the night, or how uncomfortable your coat was under your seat belt. You’ll remember the Christmas songs your children were singing, loudly, off key, and all the wrong words to in the back seat, and how that moment redefined music for you forever. You’ll never be able to hear the words “one horse open sleigh” without thinking “wonderhousen stayyyyyy!” Really listen to your family laugh, sing, and tease one another. One day when your home is quiet, and the night is cold, a warm blanket could be enough to remind you of the one your nana knitted with her own hands.
One of our favorite rituals is to remind our staff that they are family to us, too! We asked our team what rituals their holidays bring, and what makes their amygdala sing! Here were some of their answers:
• Decorating Christmas cookies
• Gingerbread house decorating competitions
• Christmas caroling
• Wrapping presents
• Play dice game (right left center) with the family
• Driving around to see Christmas lights
• Seeing the Grandchildren and wishing them a wonderful life
• Lighting Hanukah Lights
• Decorating the house
• Attending church for annual Wassail (hot cider) and enjoy cookies representing different countries
• Going to candlelight Christmas Eve service at church
• Watching Christmas movies all day on Christmas day in pajamas
• Spending time with family
No amount of positive thinking is going to completely delete the sense of dread most of us feel as the holidays approach, but maybe a bit of awareness can help us milk the most out of the moment! Take the time to enjoy decorating, sipping tea or cocoa, and even listening to your family argue. The argument will fade, and so will the pressure of the holidays, but every moment you allow yourself to appreciate will become part of every holiday as far as memory can reach!
Thank you for letting ilumin be part of your family’s healthy 2018! We have a space in our hearts for every member of our team, and every one of our patients!
Thank you, and we’ll see you next year!