At Christmas time every year, the British Medical Journal publishes a ‘fluff piece’. While the science is generally considered sound, the subject matter is meant to be humorous and light-hearted. Previous papers include titles such as where did all the teaspoons go? and the side effects of sword swallowing. In 2015, the BMJ released a truly festive article, looking for the precise location of Christmas cheer within the human brain.
While analysing the fMRI scans of subjects in a migraine research programme, Anders Hougaard and his colleagues at the University of Copenhagen noticed particular regions of the brain firing when images of Christmas were shown. This led them to conduct a secondary study, using twenty healthy volunteers, half of whom had positive experiences of the season, while the other half had no festive traditions or were neutral to the event.
Hougaard set about trying to locate the neurological responses from both groups, in an attempt to locate a specific centre of activity. While the study did not use a representative sample size acceptable for rigorous conclusions to be drawn, their findings were intriguing.
Those in the positive Christmas group showed brain activity in several related areas of the brain. From the information gleaned, they analysed each of the connected pathways in relation to other studies of a similar nature. One of the active regions that fired is known to be linked to ‘self-transcendence’, or in other words, a part linked to our perception of spirituality.
A second region which showed high activity, the frontal premotor cortex, is important in empathy responses, firing when we mirror the emotions or physical states of others. This region also responded to viewing mouth actions, such as chewing or swallowing, suggesting that it activates in memory of shared meals and pleasant gatherings.
A final region, the somatosensory cortex, is involved in recognising facial expressions and emotions. Taken altogether, the team claims there is a strong argument for a Christmas cheer network of neural pathways, all stimulated in response to positive imagery. This was particularly evident in the positive group of participants. Those in the neutral group failed to show the same dramatic brain responses.
Despite the levity of the research paper, there are some useful elements to consider. The positive imagery may have elicited the neuronal pathways in the subject’s brains, but they would also have experienced an accompanying chemical cascade of natural ‘happy drugs’ to reinforce the feelings of good cheer and belonging.
It explains how commercial advertising giants play on our body chemistry to exploit us at this time of the year, triggering a frenzy of Christmas preparation. The earlier we are shown Christmas adverts, the greater the time we spend bathed in our own endorphins, prompting us to buy more gifts and food than is required or afforded. For all its jolly intentions, the study goes some way to prove that we are susceptible to such insidious control.
From cinnamon and nutmeg scents in shopping malls to Christmas tunes in elevators before November is over, we are enveloped in carefully orchestrated advertisements designed to perpetuate consumerism. Now before you yell, Bah Humbug! at me, I happen to love Christmas. What I dislike is the annual escalation of expectations; the debt accrued by families who feel compelled to keep up with those around them. Those whose lives would be richer and less stressful if they kept the whole event simple and inexpensive.
It takes a strong will to resist the luxury and opulence shoved in all our faces over the holiday season, especially when you discover that our brains are hardwired for festive cheer after a few pleasant experiences.
My advice would be to focus on making the joyful memories and less on the extravagance surrounding them. It’s doubtful that you’ll reach old age with the recollection of how you felt receiving gifts, but the lasting tingles of shared love and laughter will keep you in happy chemicals for all time. Merry Christmas everyone. Make it special.
If you are feeling stressed right now and need a few minutes to clear your mind, why not listen to the short session recorded at the bottom of this post?