Mind over Matter

Neurology-based advice on dealing with graceless guests at Christmas

Dear Dr Ash, 

Christmas can be overwhelming in my family. I have five siblings and loads of nieces and nephews to deal with, and inevitably every year one of the bossier members of the family tries to foist rules about present-giving on the rest of us. I resent being told “it’s a £5 limit this year,” or “let’s all give charity donations”. This year it’s “let’s not give any presents at all”. I think these choices should be up to the individual, and I happen to like choosing thoughtful gifts. Also, my children are younger than my older siblings’ tribe and still enjoy ripping open packages. I’ve loyally given presents to all my siblings’ children for the past twenty years and now they’re not bothering with mine. I know my gripes aren’t in the spirit of Christmas, but I can’t help resenting these arbitrary and – to my mind – self-serving seasonal diktats.

Cross of Hitchin

Dear Cross,

It is a rainy start to December here in Somerset, and between sullen grey mornings and early dark evenings our family, like yours, has been rather squashed together. To alleviate the boredom and provide an outlet for our frustrations we sometimes play games, and a perennial favourite amongst neuroscientists is a rather tricksy one called “Ultimatum”. Although it’s about as far as you could get from the Christmas spirit, this game may shed some light on your dilemma.

Let’s imagine two players, and for clarity let’s call them Abel and Cain. Abel starts the game with £10 and must offer some amount of this money to Cain. If Cain accepts the amount offered, both players win money and the game ends. If, however, Cain rejects the offer, neither player gets any money and the game ends. I will admit that it’s neither a long nor a particularly delightful game.

Rationally, Cain should accept absolutely any offer above zero. After all, he started the game with nothing and would finish with at least some cash in hand. As you might imagine, though, if Abel were to offer a paltry sum – say £1 – Cain would likely tell him in no uncertain terms where to shove it. In that case they would both walk away with nothing.

Neuroimaging shows us some of what happens when Cain makes this seemingly irrational decision. The unfair offer activates regions of the brain associated with pain and disgust, such as the anterior insula, and that produces a visceral sensation of suffering. On the other hand, a fair offer activates brain areas linked to pleasure and reward, such as orbitofrontal and ventromedial prefrontal cortices. Our feelings of fairness and unfairness can biologically overshadow any actual reward and punishment.

If the relationship between Cain and Abel is complex, the mind can only reel at what happens in your family home when five siblings and all their children play the holiday edition of Ultimatum. Offers and counter-offers – some stated, others implied and a few, it seems, just outright imposed – fly around the room, provoking your prefrontal lobes and keeping you mired in judgements about fairness. My advice to you is simply not to play this game.

As you have pointed out, Christmas is about giving without expecting anything in return. You must put aside the question of what is fair and focus instead on what will work. Of course, it’s not easy to ignore the neuronal screaming of your insular cortex. If willpower alone isn’t enough, do remember there’s a reason that mulled wine, a potent inhibitor of the frontal lobe, is so popular during the festive season.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

Dear Dr Ash,

My wife views Christmas and the New Year as a time when you get the wider family together, no matter what your gripes with them. So the house party includes her 44 year-old younger brother, even though none of us, including my sister and her husband, really get on with him or his partner. They’re both quite self-obsessed people who make critical comments about our three children (they don’t have any themselves) and sneer when we try and get them to play games like charades. To be honest, it’s a relief when they go. But my wife says she’d feel guilty and uncharitable if she didn’t include them. 

How can I either get free of them, or change the dynamic?

Frustrated of Durham

Dear Frustrated,

As a fellow parent, I hope you’ll allow me to lay bare an open secret: no one likes anyone else’s children. We don’t enjoy asking about their favourite subjects in school, we don’t care what sports they like, and we certainly don’t want to hear the piece they are learning to play on the piano. We pretend to like them because once long ago someone pretended to like us, and it seems only fair. 

Moreover, there is a reason that single people without kids don’t go to bars in the evening hoping to run into large families with whom they can play charades. No one likes charades. These are games that we play as social tools, to enable people of different ages with different skills to come together to do something silly and have a laugh. 

The reason that we all get together in the holidays, the reason we put up with our extended families and their children and the reason we play stupid games, is that these rituals re-affirm our tribal bonds. They are simple ways of showing we’re willing to make sacrifices to prioritise each other. We don’t question whether the rituals make any sense. We just perform them in the same way, over and over, time and time again, and after many years, in one of the wonderful mysteries of the human condition, that seems to add up to meaning.

So I suggest that you do invite your brother-in-law and his partner for Christmas, and perhaps even try to laugh at yourselves along with them. They’re making the effort to come and spend the holidays with you even though it sounds like they would rather be elsewhere, so consider this a compromise. 

And if you can’t muster that, I advise simply being patient. Your children will grow up. You and your brother-in-law will get older. Life will soften everyone’s hard edges and eventually you will be able to look back on all the tortured piano recitals, stale mince pies, tired old jokes and silly party games, and find pleasure in knowing how delightfully foolish it was all along. In the meantime, I wish you the very best of the festive season.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Ash

Dr Ash Ranpura is a neuroscientist and clinical neurologist. He qualified in medicine and general neurology at Yale University and the Yale-New Haven Hospital, and trained in cognitive neuroscience at Queen Square, London

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