‘Tis the season to be jolly…well, for most of us. For others, the thought of Christmas festivities fills them with dread – a phenomenon termed “bah humbug” syndrome. But according to new research, this phenomenon may be down to lack of activity in a brain network associated with “Christmas spirit.”
Yes, you read right; researchers have identified a Christmas spirit network in the brain – an area that they believe may play a role in the feelings of joy and nostalgia many of us feel during the holiday season.
The discovery – detailed in The BMJ‘s Christmas issue, commonly known for its unconventional content – could help rekindle the Christmas spirit for people with bah humbug syndrome, according to the authors.
To reach their findings, study coauthor Anders Hougaard, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 20 adults.
The team notes that since the early 90s, fMRI has been used to pinpoint emotional and functional regions in the human brain; in this study, the team used the scanning technique to determine whether Christmas spirit could be isolated in specific cerebral regions.
“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 localization of the Christmas spirit is a paramount first step in being able to help this group of patients,” the authors explain.
They add that localizing Christmas spirit in the brain may also increase understanding of the role the brain plays in festive cultural traditions, “making a medical contribution to cross-cultural festivities and goodwill to all.”
During fMRI, the 20 participants were required to wear video goggles and view 84 images; subjects were shown six consecutive images with a Christmas theme for 2 seconds each, before being shown six everyday images, and so on.
After the scans, each participant completed a questionnaire detailing their Christmas traditions, how they felt about Christmas and their ethnicity.
Based on this information, the researchers allocated them to one of two groups: the Christmas group (who reported celebrating Christmas and had positive feelings toward the festive season), and the non-Christmas group (who did not celebrate Christmas and had neutral feelings toward the festive season).
The team then compared the brain scans of the two groups to see if their brain activity differed in response to the images they viewed.
Compared with participants in the non-Christmas group, the team found that those in the Christmas group demonstrated greater activity in five brain areas in response to Christmas-themed images, including the left primary motor and premotor cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobule, and bilateral primary somatosensory cortex.
According to the researchers, these areas have been linked to a number of functions, including spirituality and recognition of facial emotions.
The left and right parietal lobules, for example, have been associated with self-transcendence – representing predisposition to spirituality.
“Furthermore,” the authors add, “the frontal premotor cortex is important for experiencing emotions shared with other individuals by mirroring or copying their body state and premotor cortical mirror neurons even respond to observation of ingestive mouth actions. Recall of joyful emotions and pleasant ingestive behavior shared with loved ones would be likely to elicit activation here.”
Commenting on the potential implications of their findings, the researchers say:
“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.”
The authors stress, however, that their findings should be interpreted with caution, noting that “something as magical and complex as the Christmas spirit cannot be fully explained by, or limited to, the mapped brain activity alone.”