How do I know Thanksgiving is over? I simply look out the back window of my home to witness the brilliant array of Christmas lights. To be fair, my neighbor's lights have been up for quite a while. It appears that he starts his lighting festivities earlier every year, which means at some point in the future his Christmas lights will actually usher in the Christmas of the following year.
Lights tend to grab our attention. And there is a reason for this, according to John Medina, the author of Brain Rules. Our brains are predisposed to pay attention to things that jump out at us. In fact. the brain, the amygdala in particular, follows a pretty basic checklist upon observing anything new or out of the ordinary.
Medina says the amygdala processes emotionally charged events and uses dopamine as a kind of chemical post-it note to aid in making sure the event is remembered (I don’t know which came first--the Post-it note or the amygdala. I suspect the Post-it note; 3M is pretty cutting edge) Thus, we are hardwired to pay a great deal of attention to these kinds of essential questions:
Can I eat it?
Will it eat me?
Can I mate with it?
Have I seen it before?
Does it have a Facebook page?
Now that my neighbor has officially kicked off the holiday season, retailers are hot on the trail of our collective amygdalas. What was cutting edge in the past (anyone remember bread machines?) gives way to electronic tablets with amazingly crisp graphics of ferocious dinosaurs. This leads back to question 2, which kicks up that little squirt of dopamine. Next thing you know, you're dropping a couple Franklins on the opportunity to be intentionally self-frightened. Coincidentally, you can achieve the same effect by eating that leftover Thanksgiving turkey leg that's been sitting out all night in its own pool of coagulated gravy niblets.
Once Christmas season hits, all those festive ads--from the guy whose shaving gel summons scores of scantily clad models wearing Santa hats, to the Clydesdale horses pulling large kegs of beer through a Thomas Kinkade painting--are all gunning for that little piece of our brains, and our need to pay attention to the unusual.
So what about the Christmas lights? Most of the year when I look out my back window, barring the blue-green glow wafting across the back lawn from my neighbor's television, it's pretty much business as usual. So it is true that even though his lights went up sometime around the end of October, I pay attention. They made it into this blog, didn't they?
What does it all mean? According to Medina, it means my own amygdala is present and accounted for, looking out for my safety, ready to sound the alarm if my neighbor's Christmas display should turn dangerous. This is good to know; lights are one thing, but some strangely dressed obese guy trying to sneak his way down my chimney flue is a far more serious matter. Especially since we have a fake fireplace.