For many people the holidays are synonymous with the stress of family-drama. Families are passing around mixed nuts, cheese plates and assorted insults all over America. However, the problem is not the family. The problem is our brains have not changed since humans began walking upright, whereas society and technology have changed rapidly, and continue to do so. This disparity places human biology at odds with human technology and society.
Humans often forget we are animals, because we are usually too busy trying to save the other animals from ourselves. However, we are animals, mammals to be specific. For mammals, social attachments, such as friendships and family relationships, help with survival. Thus all mammalian brains, including ours, form social attachments.
When something is important to the survival, evolution finds a ways to inscribe it in our biology, e.g. hunger. For keeping us from hurting ourselves the brain recruited pain regions. For keeping us from wandering into the jungle alone the brain recruited fear regions. And for making sure we engage in the right social behavior, the brain recruited the olfactory system, or smell. Subsequently, smell remains vitally involved in social behavior today.
When you think of positive social relationships you feel positive emotions. Interestingly, emotion and smell influence each other at the level of social interaction. Functionally, animals use scents to express individual and group identity, as well as attraction or repulsion. These scents are called pheromones. Humans use pheromones in the same way. For example, studies have shown that when men subconsciously smell ovulating women their testosterone levels rise. Other studies have shown that humans associate specific food smells with specific social, and family situations as well as with social class. The brain biases towards the smells it associates with its family, its friends, and its social class, while developing an aversion to smells that do not symbolize those things.
Anatomically, the olfactory brain overlaps with the socio-emotional brain. Many scientists believe that the olfactory brain contributed to the evolution of the socio-emotional brain. In addition the involvement of certain neuropeptides (i.e. vasopressin and oxytocin) have been well articulated in a wide variety of social behaviors in various animals. Vasopressin and oxytocin affect the ability of animals to recognize social relationships. Recent studies have identified vasopressin-expressing neurons in various olfactory structures, in humans and animals. Subsequent research determined that vasopressin and oxytocin modulate social recognition at the olfactory level. Other studies have shown that rats can distinguish family relationships, from non-family relationships with other rats whether the kindred rodents were raised together or separately. While humans would seldom need to utilize this, pheromone research suggests that we could easily do this if need be. If you distrust the pheromone research, just ask any cheese plate how similar humans and rats are.
In humans, social attachment has always been associated with positive feelings of warmth and tenderness. However, just recently studies have shown that the neural substrates of familial and social-based emotion go beyond the systems associated with pleasure and reward. Brain lesion studies in humans and animals found that there is a group of basal forebrain structures, which have existed across species throughout evolution that play a central role in organizing social attachment.
A recent study discovered that family-relationship stimuli activate a specific brain circuit. Furthermore, activity in this circuit did not respond to emotionally evocative positive, negative, or neutral non-family-relationship stimuli. This suggests that these structures play a central role for the neural representation of family beyond those brain systems that report pleasure. The structures that are involved in the neural organization of family-related behavior in the human brain are also found in several species of animals. This separates familial relationship experience from general emotional valence.
The observation that family-member experiences can be disassociated from general pleasure experience supports behavioral findings. The family-related scenarios evoke higher levels of tender feelings than non-family related scenarios with equivalent levels of positive or negative emotional valence. Therefore, presumably it would follow that the absence of such family-related scenarios would be negatively more emotionally evocative.
The take home message is simple. Evolution inscribed the need for family-related interaction and behavior deep in human biology, commencing at the olfactory level. It makes sense, because across species and time strong family connections have been synonymous with safety and prosperity. That, however, is our ancient brain talking from a vantage point that has not changed since the ancients began walking upright. Now from the perspective of a highly advanced and rapidly changing technological society there are some equally real issues. People move away, are exposed to different influences, learn things, unlearn things, and suddenly all that is left is the consanguine connection. While blood may be thicker than water, it seems too thin in comparison to sexual orientation differences, varying lifestyle choices, career decisions, spousal choices, and old insults that never die.
Socially, when some Mormon boy brings home his black transgender girlfriend, Winky Tucker, it is going to take more than “Donny and Marie Sing White Christmas” to bring Yuletide harmony to that house, Yet, if he doesn’t home for Christmas, he’s not happy either. He always goes home for Christmas. Home is where Christmas lives.
There in lies the problem. It is not our family social issues. Rather, it is the internal tension between satisfying our deeply seeded biological need to be with family, which, evolution instilled in subcortical brain structures since the beginning of human existence versus our neocortex’s desire to avoid psychologically and emotionally aversive, social situations.
Trying to manage the tension between our biological nature and our social reality is very stressful. The holidays exacerbate this. Additionally, we are emotionally vulnerable and available to our families on levels that we are not available to any other humans, which means more stress. As the Stress Literature has articulated for years: burdening the brain’s stress regulatory mechanisms and the physiological sequelae results in negative health outcomes e.g., cardiac concerns, inflammatory and immune disorders. So the issue becomes greater than being with your family for the holidays or not. It becomes an issue of your health, your family’s health, and more importantly, as a parent, your children’s health because viable family relationships are import to our basic biology. The stronger the family bond is the greater the likelihood of success and happiness for its members. Many, many studies have reported that.
Therefore, we have to work it out with our families, as best we can, for those reasons. While we are circumnavigating the difficulties involved in family relationships and interactions, we must remember family is the most sacrosanct human lodge, and observe it thusly. Whether you realize it intellectually, or acknowledge it religiously, deep in your brain, at its most basic level, family is sacred—so sacred that you do not even need your name or a personal history to get in—just your scent will gain you admission. Being an active part of a family is one of those things in life that is like being in love—it’s not much; it’s only every little thing. Jingle bells, and please, go home for the holidays. Remain fabulous and phenomenal.