Which one are you: “I hate Christmas,” or “Oh my god Christmaaaas aaaargh *flaps arms excitedly and knocks glass of mulled wine on the floor*”?
Christmas might sometimes seem like Marmite, but with so many people spreading infectious smiles and feelings of joy, why do people often come down with a case of “bah humbug” syndrome? A newly discovered “Christmas spirit” network in the brain might offer us some clues.
“Throughout the world, we estimate that millions of people are prone to displaying Christmas spirit deficiencies after many years of celebrating Christmas,” the authors write in their study, published in the BMJ Christmas special. “Accurate localization of the Christmas spirit is a paramount first step in being able to help this group of patients.”
If your eyebrows are creeping toward your hairline at this point: Yes, this is a genuine study. But given the time of year, it’s just a bit of fun and should be taken with a pinch of salt. And perhaps the findings might actually help us better understand the neuroscience of festive cultural traditions, the authors suggest.
Regardless of its worthiness in academic literature, the University of Copenhagen investigation began with a group of 26 healthy participants whose brain activity was investigated using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. It’s important to note that that no eggnog or gingerbread was consumed prior to the imaging.
During the scans, participants wore goggles that flashed a series of 84 images for two seconds each, consisting of six Christmassy images followed by six that depicted similar features but were devoid of anything associated with Christmas. Afterward, participants were given a questionnaire that asked about Christmas traditions and feelings toward the festive season.
Image highlights differences in brain activity between the groups. Credit: The BMJ/ Hougaard et al., 2015
This information was then used to categorize participants into two groups: the “Christmas group” in which participants both celebrated this holiday and had positive associations with it, and the “non-Christmas group” who were basically the opposite. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those in the former were ethnic Danes who celebrated Christmas according to traditions of the country, whereas those in the latter had their roots in countries that don’t traditionally celebrate this holiday, like Pakistan and Iraq.
After scouring the scans, the researchers noted some interesting differences. For example, while Christmassy images boosted both groups’ activity in the visual cortex – the area that processes images – to a greater extent than the everyday images, these scenes also resulted in heightened activity of other brain areas in the Christmas group.
In fact, in response to the festive pictures, there were five brain areas that showed greater activation in the Christmas group compared with the non-Christmas group. Interestingly, among their various functions, they have been previously linked with spirituality and the recognition of emotions in facial expressions. The right parietal lobules, for instance, are thought to be involved in self-transcendence, basically experiencing a connection or harmony with the world around us. In addition, another area, the premotor cortex, can be activated by things we associate with Christmas, such as eating nice things with loved ones.
Although these five regions have been dubbed a “Christmas spirit” network, it wouldn’t be surprising if similar activity were to be observed when other festivities or holidays are examined. Still, this Christmas, may your somatosensory cortex be merry and bright.