Christmas Cheer in the Brain


We all have that one friend who, as soon as December 1st strikes, breaks out the Christmas decorations, starts blasting “Jingle Bells” all day long, and goes on and on about how “’tis the season to be jolly” (hint: if you can’t think who that friend might be, it’s probably you). But what makes some people be overwhelmed by joy and nostalgia in relation to Christmas, while others would rather cut their ears off before listening to yet another merry carol? That’s exactly what a group of scientists at the University of Denmark set out to investigate.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they monitored the brain activity of 20 people while they viewed both Christmas and non-Christmas images. These 20 people were also split into two groups, based on their Christmas celebration habits: 10 of them routinely celebrated Christmas, while the other 10 had absolutely no Christmas-related traditions.

What the researchers found was that the Christmasy group had increased activity in a bunch of brain areas (sensory motor, premotor, and primary motor cortex, as well as the inferior and superior parietal lobules) compared to the non-Christmasy group when viewing Christmas-related images. These areas have been associated with spirituality, experiencing emotions shared with others, and recognition of facial emotions, among others, so if there is such a thing as a representation of the Christmas spirit in the brain, it makes sense to find it in this network.

Grinch’s side

Before you go celebrate these findings with another mug of mulled wine (or drown your sorrows in it, depending on what side of the fence you’re on), it’s worth taking a second to ask: do these findings really prove once and for all that the Christmas spirit lives in the inferior parietal lobule? Short answer: hard nope.

Long answer: while the study brings some evidence in support of this hypothesis, there are several other things that need to be investigated. For one, were there any other differences between the two groups that might’ve led to these results? (Researchers only asked them about their Christmas habits.) Would the same pattern of activation be observed if the participants had viewed other, non-Christmas images that made them feel joyful and nostalgic? Does this work for other holidays (e.g., Diwali or Easter)? The results should also be replicated in a larger group of people. And finally, neuroscientists are still debating whether trying to localize complex emotions in specific parts of the brain even makes sense in the first place, so the answer throw this study in a new light. But that’s a whole other rabbit hole and we’ve definitely not had enough mulled wine for that just yet.

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