Researchers discover the location of the “Christmas spirit” in the human brain

No, it’s not a joke. It’s real research done by scientists and reported in the British Medical Journal (one of the most prestigious journals of its kind).  It may sound like a spoof since the short article is written in a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted way, but it isn’t. I suggest you read it to get its full (candy cane) flavor.

One of the reasons for the season’s research is that “The Christmas spirit has eluded science thus far; though well known as a pleasant feeling, its cerebral location and mechanisms are still a mystery.” Perhaps it’s time to clear away all of the lumps of coal that have been hiding the Christmas spirit’s location. As they continue:

The Christmas spirit has been a widespread phenomenon for centuries, commonly described as feelings of joy and nostalgia mixed with associations to merriment, gifts, delightful smells, and copious amounts of good food. It is yet to be determined, however, where in the human body this “Christmas spirit” resides and which biological mechanisms are involved. We attempted to localise the Christmas spirit in the human brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Feelings such as joy, sorrow, and disgust have been isolated to certain cerebral regions. We used a similar technique by comparing a group of people who have celebrated Christmas since their youth with a group having no Christmas traditions. We scanned the two groups while they were viewing various images and analysed changes in brain activity when they were viewing images with yuletide themes as opposed to regular images. Our hypothesis was that the two groups would respond differently to Christmas images based on their differences in exposure to Christmas celebrations.

Throughout the world, we estimate that millions of people are prone to displaying Christmas spirit deficiencies after many years of celebrating Christmas. We refer to this as the “bah humbug” syndrome. Accurate localisation of the Christmas spirit is a paramount first step in being able to help this group of patients.Location of the Christmas spirit could also contribute to a more general understanding of the brain’s role in festive cultural traditions, making a medical contribution to cross cultural festivities and goodwill to all.

These researchers had been working on studying migraine headaches in patients in Denmark.  They had been kicking around the idea of trying to locate any specific regions of the brain that were associated with the Christmas spirit. Could there be a specific location or locations in the brain that, when activated, gave the test individual all of the warm, fuzzy feelings about Christmas: happiness, good cheer, joy, peace, camaraderie and so on?  After talking about this for a few years, they decided to actually do the research in their free time when the MRIs weren’t being used for other things.

MRIs use magnetism to penetrate the brain (which has a consistency similar to figgy pudding). MRIs can be used to see anatomical structures in the brain: cortex, cerebellum, brainstem, ventricles and other structures to see if they are normal or damaged. Functional MRIs (fMRIs), the technique used in this research, allows visualization of the brain, too, showing regions of the brain lighting up when blood flow to those areas increases and those sites start to metabolize at a faster rate. It can then be inferred that the more active areas are associated with some activity that the test subject is exposed to. For example, if a song is played, areas of his brain will activate that are associated with hearing music. If it’s a favorite song of the subject’s, other areas may light up, as well. If they really enjoyed the tune, the different areas brighten in response to that (pleasure). Other areas may light up showing where the memory of the music is stored in the brain. Or, if the subject is asked to do a math problem, different areas associated with that task will selectively light up. Those having to do with reasoning, math and other related centers.

The researchers selected two groups of subjects.  One group had a tradition of celebrating Christmas and had positive feelings about Christmas. To members of that group, Christmas meant things like happiness, tradition, family, warmth, feelings of coziness and safety. The other group never celebrated Christmas (they were members of non-Christian religions and from countries where Christmas celebrations didn’t occur). These subjects had Christmas-neutral emotions — no strong positive or negative feelings. This group was used as the control group.   Grinches (those with strong negative feelings about Christmas) were excused from the study.

The subjects signed a consent for the research and were given a medical exam. They were not given psychological exams so its’s unknown who in either group was naughty or nice. They were divided into two groups, based on whether they celebrated Christmas or not. All subjects in both groups had a series of MRIs to check for brain pathology and fMRIs to check how metabolically active their brains were initially in order to establish a baseline. Then each subject was shown six pictures of non-Christmas images (a beach, forest, houses and other “Christmas-neutral” pictures). Then they would see six pictures associated with Christmas (Christmas trees, holiday decorations, traditional Christmas foods, Santa Claus and other Christmas-themed photos). Next, they were shown the everyday, non-Christmas photos again. This was done for each subject in the experimental and control (Christmas-naive) groups. They used this sequence of photos to first show what areas of the subjects’ brains were activated when they saw every day pictures. Then they would look to see if different areas lit up (like the eyes of a jolly old elf) when the subjects saw the Christmas images. They also looked to see if regions dimmed when the subjects looked back at the every day photos.

Areas of the brain associated with Christmas (Image:

Areas of the brain associated with Christmas (Image: BMJ 2015;351:h6266)

Christmassy images evoked Christmassy emotions for Christmas celebrators (Image courtesy of BMJ 2015;351:h6266)

Group comparison of responses to Christmas images (Image: BMJ 2015;351:h6266)

What they found was that there was not much difference in the control group (who didn’t celebrate Christmas) when they saw the everyday photos or those depicting Christmas. This group had a very small change when they saw the Christmas images. However, when the Christmas-celebrating group saw the Christmas images, there was a significant difference in the intensity of the output on the fMRI scans. The image to the near right shows the comparison between the test subjects and the controls.  The test subjects had larger responses and had responses in somewhat different areas of the brain, as well.

The researchers were careful to point out that their study doesn’t conclusively prove that there is a “Christmas network.”  As they concluded:

While celebrating the current results at a subsequent Christmas party, we discussed some limitations of the study. For instance, the study design doesn’t distinguish whether the observed activation is Christmas specific or the result of any combination of joyful, festive, or nostalgic emotions in general. The paired Christmas/non-Christmas pictures might have been systematically different in a way that we were not aware of—for example, the “Christmas pictures” containing more red colour. Maybe the groups were different in other ways apart from the obvious cultural difference. Given these uncertainties and the risk of false positive results, our findings should ideally be reproduced before firm conclusions are drawn, especially when we consider the recently documented challenges of reproducibility in our neighbouring specialty of psychology. Bringing these issues up, however, really dampened the festive mood. Therefore we, in the best interest of the readers of course, decided not to ruin the good Christmas cheer for everyone by letting this influence our interpretation of the study.

Further research into this topic is necessary to identify the factors affecting one’s response to Christmas. For example, responses to Christmas might change with development from a child, who primarily receives presents, to an adult, who primarily buys them. Subgroups subjected to receipt of tacky jumpers as their Christmas present might also have different responses in brain activity from those of subgroups who tend to receive more attractive gifts. Understanding how the Christmas spirit works as a neurological network could provide insight into an interesting area of human neuropsychology and be a powerful tool in treating ailments such as bah humbug syndrome. Comparative studies of these patterns will also be imperative in studying other seasonal disturbances, related to, for example, Easter, Chanukah, or Diwali. This study could therefore be an important first step in transcultural neuroscience and the associations humans have with their festive traditions.

If you didn’t have the Christmas spirit before you read this research, I hope it’s helped you to Cratchit.

Happy, healthy and safe holidays to all!

Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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