Just like Santa, the holidays is my busiest time of year. Most of my clients operate on a calendar year that requires all projects to be completed and paid for by December 31. That means that just when everyone is starting to take days off to be with their families, I am crunching through long days to complete design projects ahead of the deadline. Not that I’m complaining – I’d much rather be busy than the alternative – but it does mean that my head isn’t usually in the holiday spirit until right around Christmas Eve. Most of the time, I can point to a single moment when my mind took a turn and the holiday switch flipped in my brain. This year I was  listening to Christmas carols on the radio when I started to cry.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

rudolphI was listening to the classic, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” The story tells of a young reindeer who is rejected by North Pole society because he has a “shiny nose.” You could insert just about any other term for “shiny nose” and have an after-school special for kids who “don’t fit in.” (Minus today’s digital shaming and real-world violence.) Because he is different, Rudolph goes through the pain of rejection and loss before finding his way to fit in. It’s a sweet, ultimately hopeful story.

So why does it always make me cry?

It has a lot to do with how our brains stitch together a memory. It turns out our memories are not stored in a single place in the brain. Neurons from multiple parts of our brain stitch together a memory, including sensual stimuli, such as sights, sounds and smells, related events, isolated bits of fact and our emotional response, all linked together. When something triggers a memory, these neurons fire together, recreating the remembered moment in your brain. We are transported back in time, sometimes without even being fully aware of it at the time.

Music has a powerful effect on memory

Music-of-Your-Sphere1Human brains interpret waves that fall between 20 to 20,000 Hz as sound. The vibration, usually carried by the air, enters our ear, eventually stimulates the auditory nerve, which sends a signal to the brain. Music is a complex weaving of sounds, mixed with rhythm and sometimes language. Using brain imaging technologies, neuroscientists have discovered that music engages multiple parts of the brain.

Last night, the music from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer reminded me of a Christmas long gone by. At 15, I considered myself “too old” to watch it for my own enjoyment, but I was introducing my three-year old sister to the show for the first time. Until recently, I would have classified this memory as a happy one. But a few years ago, my “little” sister, now all grown up, was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. My brain has rewired the happy memory to incorporate new information. The same music that once made me happy now makes me sad, at such a deep, profound level in my being that I couldn’t initially put words to the sorrow and fear I was feeling. I was surprised that I reacted this way, since she is doing much better and we’re all hopeful about the future.

But the memory was still there. I had to choose to make Rudolph a happy feeling. Once I realized the source of my sadness, I was able to tease out the happy part of the memory and focus on that until a smile crept on my face.

We can rewire our memories

neurosplasticityThe longer you live on this earth, the more memories you collect and the greater the chance that you will have a mixture of happy and sad memories connected the stimuli. But we can rewire our brains, and restructure those memories. While it isn’t always easy, we can choose to focus on the positive parts of a memory and, over time, convert sorrow to happiness.

We can also choose to make new, happier memories from the experiences of today.

So let’s make some happy memories this holiday season!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!