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    Christmas On The Brain
    By Michael W. Taft | December 12th 2011 01:49 PM | 20 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael W.

    Michael W. Taft is a student of evolution, psychology, and the capacities of the human brain. A professional researcher and writer for more than...

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    Xmas time is here again. Unlike many people I have no particular aversion to the holiday season. I don’t have too many emotional scars from Christmases past. Getting presents was always fun, I liked the lights on our tree, even stringing popcorn, and these days I try to keep awkward gatherings to a minimum. For me it breaks up the endless round of quotidian drudgery in a relatively pleasant way. But this year I can’t help viewing the whole spectacle through the eyes of human evolution and psychology. No matter how you might feel about the holiday season personally, it’s interesting to think about what may be behind all the crazy traditions: a little bit of the science behind the season. 
    As you’re buying presents, for example, remember that how much you’ll spend on a gift often depends on how closely related you are to a person genetically. Gift-giving follows the rules of kin-selection—you’ll usually give better gifts to your sister than to your second cousin—unless, of course there’s a special romantic partner you’re trying to get closer to. You’ll buy them the most extravagant gift of all, as a part of courtship behavior. Like it or not, that scarf you’re buying for your new boyfriend is based on a biological bet that you’ll be more likely to bond and have children. Choose carefully.

    For many of us, family gatherings are the most stressful part of the season, when we're trapped in conversations with racist Uncle Dan and loud-mouthed Cousin Carol. Despite being surrounded by people, you might still feel the effects of the modern condition known as social isolation, wherein your brain responds most strongly to human conflict and least to things that might make you happy, leaving you feeling lonely and depressed. However, even the Grinchiest of us benefits from participating in holiday rituals with the family, as these actions can help cement the bonds between us year after year. As you gather around the fire with your relatives, you are participating in one of the most ancient rituals of your human family. How's that for tradition? 

    Maybe your only refuge during the holidays is found in food. No matter how boring the company, how difficult the office mates, how annoying the politics/religion/obsessions of your relatives, perhaps a delicious meal of holiday turkey offers you a pleasant reprieve. And the sharing of food may be among the hoariest of human behaviors. Humans in every culture worldwide practice sharing food with other members of their group, especially high-value foods like meat. If you were a hunter-gatherer, you’d be partaking of a strip of buffalo meat instead of a slice of lemon meringue pie, but the urge is the same. Research shows that even Homo ergaster—your grandma from two million years ago—regularly gathered to share food (i.e. have a feast), so rest assured that your brain is programmed to find this enjoyable on some level.

    As you’re scooping up a ladle-full of spiked fruit punch, you might note that our attraction to alcohol may have an evolutionary basis in seeking fruit, which in the tropics often starts to ferment quite quickly. It’s possible that we got a taste for booze because our diet was so dependent on fruit, and our ancient ancestors were drawn to the wafting scent of fermentation. Just consider that most symbolic of holiday foods: a cake of preserved fruit that has been doused in brandy. Remember not to imbibe too much at the office party, though, or you might find yourself in the supply closet with a coworker, particularly if you're one of the individuals whose brain seems wired for uncommitted sex. If you slip up, you can console yourself with the knowledge that both men and women find the idea of their partners cheating with coworkers less threatening than many other possibilities.

    It’s rare these days that a group of carolers will actually assemble outside your house and regale you with song, but you are certainly going to be hammered relentlessly with recorded Christmas music virtually every moment you’re out in public. At smaller parties, actual group singing may even occur. If you’re trapped in such a situation, you can find consolation in the fact that Christmas carols were actually banned in England and America for two hundred years (blame the Victorians for bringing them back). There’s always the possibility that we could return to the good ole days when people were fined for singing them. There’s a big debate about whether the human love of music is an evolutionary byproduct or is itself adaptive—for example, by making us sexier. Either way, singing makes people more relaxed and energized, so don’t hold back.

    As you’re driving past all the houses decorated with lights, nativity scenes, Santas, and reindeer, remember that people use their decorations to signal their neighbors that they are friendly and open to community connections. Christmas trees, wreaths, poinsettias, mistletoe, and other decorative plants each have a ritual purpose, but generally they also could be an extension of our desire to bring plants into interior spaces. We evolved out in the wild, and bringing plants indoors can make you feel better.

    Postal mail seems to be going the way of the dodo, but around this time of year you'd never guess. When you're sending out holiday greeting cards to your loved ones, you might note that the social networks to whom we send cards ends up being around 150 people (taking into account couples and families), which is predicted by the size of our primate neocortex. We are also more likely to respond to Christmas cards from people we think are high-status rather than those we think are low-status. 

    he season of giving also inspires many of us to devote our time and money to charity, which seems contrary to popular conceptions of "survival of the fittest." But researchers recently found that a rat will go out of its way to rescue another rat that is trapped. Even when chocolate was present, the rat would first free its trapped cohort, and then actually share the chocolate with it! This would suggest that empathy or altruism runs much deeper in mammalian lineage than previously thought. While you might know some humans with less compassion than a rat, even Scrooge was (eventually) moved by the holiday season to help out his poorer fellows in need. Christmas alms-giving is hard-wired to give us pleasure and may even help us to find a mate.

    No matter how meaningless the stockings, songs, and symbols might seem at first glance, all the strange customs of the holidays spring from some deep and ancient place within us. If you're a Grinch, you can console yourself in knowing it's all just a manifestation of our monkey brains, and if you're irrepressibly merry, then you can find validation for even the most exuberant joy. And if, at the end of it all, you find yourself pining for the more-perfect Yules of yore, remember that nostalgia is not only an natural anti-depressant, but that it doesn’t depend on the memories being accurate or even real. So go ahead and remember some really awesome ghosts of Christmas past that never actually happened. You’ll feel better.

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    STOP!!!! ... Please stop putting questionable, anecdotal data into this discussion posing as science.
    Gift-giving follows the rules of kin-selection—you’ll usually give better gifts to your sister than to your second cousin—unless, of course.
    Nothing could be further from the truth, and you've specifically conflated the notion of "kin-selection" with its notion of inclusive fitness into some social/cultural context to which it has no relationship whatsoever.  I don't even accept the notion of Hamilton's rule in biology, but I feel compelled to defend it against this nonsense.
    Like it or not, that scarf you’re buying for your new boyfriend is based on a biological bet that you’ll be more likely to bond and have children.
    Oh please.
    The season of giving also inspires many of us to devote our time and money to charity, which seems contrary to popular conceptions of "survival of the fittest."
    Only by those that abuse the word "fitness".  I'm not even clear why you would bring this up, since it has nothing to do with eusocial-like organisms such as humans.
    This would suggest that empathy or altruism runs much deeper in mammalian lineage than previously thought.
    Why stop at mammals?  This is precisely the problem because no one appears to be thinking.

    Overall, I found nothing in this post to be remotely related to evolution.  Most of it is loosely cobbled together cultural anecdotes that bear no relationship to the actual biological process of natural selection.  It's little wonder that evolutionary psychology is viewed as a cartoon among the sciences.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    Overall, I found nothing in this post to be remotely related to evolution. Most of it is loosely cobbled together cultural anecdotes that bear no relationship to the actual biological process of natural selection. It's little wonder that evolutionary psychology is viewed as a cartoon among the sciences.
    I thought he was being humorous; " how much you’ll spend on a gift often depends on how closely related you are to a person genetically. Gift-giving follows the rules of kin-selection" wasn't serious. He linked to Psychology Today!

    Man, Gerhard, we are going to call you Evolutionary Psychology Scrooge - you scare the Dickens out of people!
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually I'm not sure that everyone necessarily interprets humor in quite that way.  Generally speaking, I don't think Psychology Today automatically equates to humor.

    However, I will gladly play Scrooge under these circumstances.  Bah ... Humbug

    NOTE:  There is an interesting evolutionary aspect to the word "Humbug" however.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MichaelTaft
    Thank you for having a sense of humor. 
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I'm afraid you pressed the evolution alarm button here Michael, that is guaranteed to cause an uproar at Science20 but apart from that I found your article a very interesting Xmas read. Especially the link called 'The missing drink: Evolution may explain why so many love alcohol' that said :-
    Curiously, accounts of drunken monkeys are nowhere to be found, a lack, Milton said, that argues against the hypothesis. In what she called her "intoxicated primate survey," Milton polled 20 primatologists, many, like her, with years of field experience.
    The primatologists reported on 22 primate species, including all the great apes, and various new and old world monkeys. "I was sure someone would tell me they'd seen a drunken monkey or a drunken ape," Milton said.
    That's really interesting!
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    Let's not overlook the obvious.  I know of few people for whom alcohol is not an acquired taste.  This is hardly suggestive of an 'evolutionary desire" for it. 

    While there is no doubt that animals can become intoxicated, it seems unlikely to be something they would pursue.  After all, the primary attraction among humans is the reduction of inhibitions which is taken to promote relaxation and "having a good time".  There are few animals that would appear to suffer from such "inhibitions", so it seems strange to suggest that they would find intoxication an enjoyable or necessary experience. 

    It doesn't take much knowledge of biology to figure out what the selection pressures would be on an intoxicated hunter-gatherer's likelihood of survival in a more hostile setting.  Intoxication is usually not credited with promoting success in most human endeavors, so it would be hard to rationalize that there's some evolutionary basis for it as a trait to be selected for.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MichaelTaft
    Animals that eat a lot of fruit may have to develop a certain tolerance for alcohol. Beyond that, the smell of fermentation might become attractive to them, or even help them to locate fruit at a distance. 
    So it's not that an animal would be selected for drunken behavior (although a stotting-like connection wouldn't be impossible), but that it is selected for being able to handle the fact that a major dietary source like fruit is often associated with some amount of fermentation. It's easier to see in the negative: if the animal couldn't handle (or had a strong distaste for) a bit of alcohol, then that would cut out a lot of potential nutrition. 
    MichaelTaft
    Glad you enjoyed it. It was mainly intended as a little holiday fun, while still linking to some serious articles. 
    ...While there is no doubt that animals can become intoxicated, it seems unlikely to be something they would pursue....

    But they do. Birds love getting plastered, various animals will seek out intoxicants. This was all wonderfully addressed a long time ago in Intoxication by Ronald Seigel(1989). I've even heard accounts like this: a friend of mine liked his pot, and apparently so did his cat. So whenever he lit up the bong the cat would jump into his lap and wait for be serviced with a lungful of smoke.

    I am very wary of attempts to reduce *all* behaviors to some evolutionary explanation. Intoxication in both humans and animals is a matter better approached behavioral and neurobiological analysis than evolution.

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    After all, the primary attraction among humans is the reduction of inhibitions which is taken to promote relaxation and "having a good time".  There are few animals that would appear to suffer from such "inhibitions", so it seems strange to suggest that they would find intoxication an enjoyable or necessary experience.  
    I don't think I agree with you there Gerhard. Plenty of pack and herd animals like lions, wolves, dogs and even horses and elephants for example spend a lot of time being extremely inhibited around the dominant males and females, one wrong move and they can get bitten, kicked or stabbed with a horn or tusk.

    I can clearly remember my childhood dog Bonny accidentally (or maybe purposely) getting drunk by drinking the dregs of beer out of pint glasses left on the ground in an English pub's beer garden. She then behaved completely out of character and attacked my father's trouser leg. She was normally pretty subservient to my father and the beer must have given her the dutch courage to vent her frustrations. She had a terrible hangover a few hours later and looked very sheepish for a day or too.

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    I never said that animals couldn't get intoxicated.  My point is that it wasn't likely to be a pursuit of theirs.  Also, I automatically discount any stories that relate to domesticated animals.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Yes, but you said 'There are few animals that would appear to suffer from such "inhibitions", so it seems strange to suggest that they would find intoxication an enjoyable or necessary experience'. Come on Gerhard, surely you can admit that this statement is not necessarily true? Anyway, I'm pretty sure that I have read quite a few articles describing animals that deliberately get drunk on fermenting fruit, here is one link describing wild animals that like to get inebriated :- 
    "There's plenty of evidence that orangutans, and apes and elephants will wonder for miles to seek the pleasure of fermented fruits; so they basically like to get drunk," says Professor Gisela Kaplan, an expert in animal behaviour at the University of New England in Armidale.
    This evidence also directly contradicts the link in this article and in the comments above that I found interesting which said :-
    Curiously, accounts of drunken monkeys are nowhere to be found....Milton polled 20 primatologists, many, like her, with years of field experience.The primatologists reported on 22 primate species, including all the great apes, and various new and old world monkeys.

    Maybe these primatologists don't know the 22 species of primates that they study as well as they think?


    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    In particular part of my response was to this statement:
    ... elephants for example spend a lot of time being extremely inhibited around the dominant males and females...
    This doesn't make any sense, because it's simply a good way to get your butt kicked.  Not exactly the same reason why humans seek to reduce their inhibitions.

    I agree that animals can get intoxicated, although whether they seek it out ... in my view, the jury's still out on that one.  Perhaps they do.  In any case, it's a liability for the animal involved, and would be interesting to see the context in which this occurred.

    Also, I would like to see this "plenty of evidence" as well as differentiating between having fermented fruit versus "getting drunk".  Such statements are too all-encompassing to inspire much confidence that anyone's actually studied this.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Gerhard, if we are going to get pedantic, you said :-
    After all, the primary attraction among humans is the reduction of inhibitions which is taken to promote relaxation and "having a good time".  There are few animals that would appear to suffer from such "inhibitions", so it seems strange to suggest that they would find intoxication an enjoyable or necessary experience. 
    Then I said :-
    I don't think I agree with you there Gerhard. Plenty of pack and herd animals like lions, wolves, dogs and even horses and elephants for example spend a lot of time being extremely inhibited around the dominant males and females, one wrong move and they can get bitten, kicked or stabbed with a horn or tusk. 
    Then you said :-
    In particular part of my response was to this statement:... elephants for example spend a lot of time being extremely inhibited around the dominant males and females...This doesn't make any sense, because it's simply a good way to get your butt kicked.  Not exactly the same reason why humans seek to reduce their inhibitions. 
    To which I would like to point out that there are probably plenty of people all around the world right now getting intoxicated at Xmas parties and reducing their inhibitions in front of their bosses and risking getting their butts kicked too!
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    Fine, if that's how you choose to use the word "inhibitions", then so be it.  However, I think you understand quite well, that in most human environments that objective is to relax and to be able to be more comfortable.  The notion of reducing inhibitions so that one can get hurt, beat up, or lose their jobs is probably NOT the primary attraction for becoming intoxicated.

    This is why I suggested that it was highly unlikely that a female elephant would choose to get intoxicated, so that she might lose her inhibitions in front of a bull elephant.  That's an unnecessarily anthropomorphic comparison, which is why I objected to it.

    I think we can agree that alcohol tends to loosen inhibitions indiscriminately, which is precisely why I also said that it seems that such a situation would be a liability for the animal (including human) involved.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    You once said that you don't drink alcohol in another blog, is that because you also get a bit too uninhibited on alcohol? I am still recovering from a Xmas dinner a week ago where all my women friends and I were definitely intoxicated and uninhibited from multiple, free, very impressive looking cocktails and then we spontaneously decided to go nightclubbing. It was definitely dangerous being in a nightclub with 15 or so intoxicated women surrounded by a lot of single, quite predatory younger men, some of whom had obviously taken the drug ICE, which makes them very sexually aggressive.

    Fortunately no one had their butt kicked though it got a bit hairy at times and we all eventually arrived home safely at 5am but the effects of the alcohol were definitely uninhibiting and increased our likelihood of getting into trouble, just like it probably does for the animals in question. Will it happen again next year? Yes, probably.....

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    You once said that you don't drink alcohol in another blog, is that because you also get a bit too uninhibited on alcohol?
    Basically I got tired of wondering who I might owe an apology to.  If my behavior didn't represent the individual that I wanted to be, then it was perhaps better to simply avoid it.

    I don't have a problem if people like to drink or even if animals enjoy getting intoxicated.  My quarrel is with the assertion that there's an evolutionary basis for it, since (as I mentioned previously) it seems to be an acquired taste, at least in humans.

    So, if we're going to claim an evolutionary basis for alcohol consumption, then what would it be?  Unless it was "selected for", it would be a meaningless discussion, so in addition, it suggests that there is a genetic basis for such enjoyment.  This makes it even harder to rationalize.

    While it can certainly be argued that intoxication may release pleasurable chemicals in the brain, it can hardly be argued that this was "selected for".  We already know the risks associated to any animal that is intoxicated, so it would be difficult to argue that this conveys some kind of advantage.  Yet without an advantage, how would it be selected for?  Since fitness involves survival and reproduction, this is a highly questionable position from which to evaluate alcohol.  Since we already know that alcohol doesn't increase survival ability, and isn't necessary for reproduction in the animal world, even the most anthropomorphic reading of this would be hard pressed to argue that it conveys any fitness benefit.  However, even if we allow that intoxication might present more breeding opportunities (i.e. in humans), it is important to remember that "fitness" isn't about sex.  It's about raising offspring to the point of reproduction themselves.  Alcohol is hardly the best vehicle for making such choices.

    Basically it comes down to the fact that alcohol (or other drugs) may have a pleasant affect on the brain and so animals many indulge when an opportunity presents itself.  Is this evolutionary?  Not likely. 

    So ... Bah, Humbug!
    Mundus vult decipi
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Thanks for explaining your stance. I am personally not very interested in the evolutionary reasons for why certain traits supposedly get selected (yawn), I think that evolution is much more random than most people believe. I am however interested in stories of animals seeking out alcohol, primatologists claiming that there is no evidence of their 22 primates drinking alcohol, a Professor claiming that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of some of these same primates and other animals deliberately seeking out and enjoying alcohol and knowing why you don't drink alcohol.
     
    Anyway, I don't want to spoil your Xmas by accidentally calling in in the ghosts of Xmas past, present or future and I respect your right to privacy and won't ask you again, maybe it is for health reasons or because it makes you so relaxed you fall asleep, as you don't seem very inhibited to me.  I think it is likely that some constantly inhibited herd and pack animals and equally inhibited people in our society really enjoy losing their inhibitions under the influence of alcohol but I doubt if it is at all beneficial in an evolutionary way, probably quite the opposite, as no one ultimately benefits from the resultant hangover or the increased chance of getting their butt kicked. The amount of alcohol consumed also makes a big difference between it just being relaxing for the animal or person or it becoming a means for a more dangerous expression of their resultant lack of inhibition.

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Gerhard Adam
    Actually there are no "ghosts" to recall.  I simply prefer to overcome my inhibitions intentionally, rather than through some uncontrolled mechanism.  It results in fewer regrets. 
    I think that evolution is much more random than most people believe.
    It can be as random as it "likes", but natural selection tends to be a bit less forgiving.  What most people confuse, isn't that things change, but rather which changes survive.  It's the process of making it through the "filter" that counts.
    ...I am personally not very interested in the evolutionary reasons for why certain traits supposedly get selected (yawn)...
    Which is precisely why most of those discussions tend to be "just so" stories.  In most cases, it is easy to dismiss some of the "stories" because they're so speculative, but they also have a more difficult side to them, when people can begin to use them as excuses or to rationalize their behaviors.  I personally don't care to hear some alcoholic complaining about how they're genetically predisposed to drinking because of evolution, rather than being responsible for their own choices and behaviors.  It's my small battle against the "genetics is destiny" crowd.
    Mundus vult decipi
    rholley
    if you're one of the individuals whose brain seems wired for uncommitted sex. If you slip up, you can console yourself with the knowledge that both men and women find the idea of their partners cheating with coworkers less threatening than many other possibilities.
    Very witty, but abominable.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England