Does it really make us happier to believe in Santa Claus and the Three Wise Men? | Society


The day is beginning to dawn, but it is not just any day. Girls and boys squirm restlessly in their beds, their stomachs full of butterflies and their brains seething with illusion. They know that today will be the big day, the one they have been waiting for for weeks, impatiently. They get rid of the sheets with unusual haste and run fast and fast to the living room. What will Santa Claus have left them overnight? Have your dreams come true?

Like every year around this time, Christmas is approaching, and with it the illusion and magic for millions of people around the world. Santa Claus, Santa Claus, the Three Wise Men from the East, the Christmas tree, the uncle … All cultures have magical beings who make us happy during the Christmas holidays with their presence and with their gifts. And that, at the same time, they invite us to reflect on what we have done during the last twelve months and what we intend to do next year.

We adults know that they are beings the fruit of imagination and a shared illusion. But most boys and girls don’t think the same way. They are as real to us as we are.

Believing makes us happy

43 years ago, in 1978, a pioneering work carried out by researchers from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, in the USA, revealed that girls and boys who believe in the existence of these magical beings for a longer time end being, on average, happier adults. Just as it sounds. Believing in magical beings during childhood favors our happiness even when we are adults.

According to their research, conducted with American minors, 85% of 4-year-old girls and boys sincerely believe in the existence of Santa Claus. This percentage drops to 65% at age six, and to only 25% at age eight.

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Well, up to this age of eight, the longer they believe in the existence of Christmas magic, the more likely it is that when they reach adulthood they will be happy. Isn’t that reason enough to maintain these traditions, those of each culture?

Without a doubt it is enough, but in science it is necessary to look for explanations to all the experiments that are made. So why is this happening? Already in this 1978 work and in a couple of later studies carried out by the same research team, something crucial was demonstrated: believing in these magical beings during early childhood does not in any way imply that when they reach adulthood these boys and girls will being superstitious, something that can certainly worry some families. The preadolescence is in charge of putting everything in its place, that they learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Reflection and planning

Nor is it true, as has been said on more than one occasion, that deceiving them into believing that these magical beings are real is going to cause them some trauma when they discover the truth. Moreover, it is precisely here where the benefits of believing in magic during childhood begin. Because the simple act of reasoning for themselves that they cannot be real, usually between the ages of six and eight, stimulates areas of their brain that will be crucial for them as adults.

We refer to areas of the so-called prefrontal cortex involved, precisely, in the capacity for reflection. Areas that are also stimulated when we ask them to think about what they have done in recent months and to make good resolutions for the next year. Reflection and planning are two important cognitive abilities during adult life. But there is more, much more.

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The illusion of waiting for the big day to arrive can become overwhelming for children. But they know they must wait, forcing their developing brains to manage their impatience and overflowing emotions. The ability to regulate emotions and delay rewards is also managed from the prefrontal cortex.

In fact, these are crucial cognitive abilities during adulthood that, in many other works, have been related precisely to the feeling of well-being. Adults with more ability to manage emotions and delay rewards tend to report feeling happier. For this reason, training patience during childhood promotes happiness in adulthood.

The neurons of the Christmas spirit

We said that in science it is necessary to seek explanations for the results of the experiments, but also in neuroscience it is important to identify with certainty which neural networks are involved in any cognitive aspect. A new work published six years ago, in 2015, this time by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, has demonstrated the existence of what has come to be called “the neural network of the Christmas spirit.”

Using brain tracking techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, which allows us to monitor the activity of our brain live and directly, they have shown that the illusion and magic that surrounds the Christmas holidays specifically activates different areas of the brain. Especially the so-called parietal lobe, which is known to be involved in the integration and interpretation of the senses and in spirituality. Both aspects deserve an explanation.

We constantly receive information from our environment, through the sense organs. Each sense transmits to our brain a different type of information (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, etc.). The neural networks of the parietal lobe are responsible for integrating them all so that, in the end, our perception of reality is unique, not fragmented.

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Well, it has been seen that this integration, when it occurs effectively and efficiently, increases confidence in oneself and in the environment, which translates into a greater sense of well-being. Again, exercising during childhood improves well-being as they reach adulthood.

With regard to spirituality, it is not synonymous with religiosity nor does it imply any kind of thoughtless credulity. In the context of cognitive neuroscience, it is defined as the feeling of belonging to a larger whole, and is related to sociability and empathy. And both (sociability and empathy) allow us to better infer the emotional states of others, in addition to increasing the subjective perception of well-being.

With all the above, there are plenty of reasons to enjoy the magic and Christmas illusion. Let us spread it to the girls and boys and let them enjoy for as long as possible the fact of being precisely this, boys and girls. Let’s not make them grow up before their time. Let them discover for themselves the reality behind these magical beings. As adults they will most likely be happier.

David Bueno i Torrens, Professor and researcher in the Biomedical, Evolutionary and Developmental Genetics Section. Director of the Chair of Neuroeducation UB-EDU1ST., Barcelona University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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