Brain research locates 'Christmas spirit'

18 December 2015

BBC/RED PLANET PRODUCTIONS/LIAM DANIEL

"Humbug syndrome": the actor Ned Dennehy plays Ebeneezer Scrooge in the forthcoming BBC television production, Dickensian, to be broadcast on Boxing Day

"Humbug syndrome": the actor Ned Dennehy plays Ebeneezer Scrooge in the forthcoming BBC television production, Dickensian, to be broadcast on Boxing D...

EXCITEMENT, joy, expectation, nostalgia, and a love of all things festive — the Christmas spirit, scientists believe, has been circulating for centuries, and they have found its exact location in the human brain.

In a study published in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal this week, researchers in Copenhagen found increased activity in five areas of the brain, when participants were shown Christmas-related images.

Of 20 healthy participants in the study, all from the same area, half celebrated — and had positive associations with — Christmas, and half had no Christmas traditions at all. The highest activity was found in the pro-Christmas group.

The five cerebral areas (the left primary motor and premotor cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobule, and bilateral primary somatosensory cortex) have previously been associated with spirituality, touch, and recognition of facial emotion.

The light-hearted study was conducted in order to “help” those suffering from the so-called “Bah humbug syndrome”, who are prone to displaying “Christmas spirit deficiencies”.

Neurological researchers from Rigshospitalet, a hospital affiliated to the University of Copenhagen, attempted to locate the Christmas spirit in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The scan measures changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in response to neural activity, and can produce maps showing which parts of the brain are involved in a particular mental process.

In the report Evidence of a Christmas Spirit Network in the Brain: Functional MRI study, the authors advised that further research is needed to understand the Christmas spirit, and other potential holiday circuits in the brain such as Chanukah, Eid, and Diwali.

“These findings should be interpreted with caution,” the report read. “Something as magical and complex as the Christmas spirit cannot be fully explained by . . . the mapped brain activity alone.”

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