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Christmas Spirit Network in the Human Brain

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For those who celebrate, they would probably describe the Christmas Spirit as the feeling of joy and merriment and for some it may also have tangible associations such as gifts, holiday related scents, family, and a lot of good food. When asking people where Christmas Spirit comes from, some people and movie adaptations such as ‘A Christmas Carol’ would answer that it comes from the heart. However, like love the Christmas Spirit stems from neurochemical reaction, which means it is occurs within the brain. The article ‘Where’s Your Christmas Spirit? Right Here, Here and Here’ written by Maggie Fox on National Broadcasting Company’s wellness section reviewed an article featured on the British Medical Journal ‘Evidence of a Christmas Spirit Network in the Brain: Function MRI Study’ discusses how people can find their Christmas Spirit figurately as well as literally. In the study by Hougaards et al. (2015), the researchers scanned two groups while they were viewing various images and analyzed changes in brain activity when they were viewing images of yuletide themes opposed to regular images. Differences between the two groups were calculated to determine Christmas specific brain activation. The researchers found a difference in the response of those who celebrate Christmas in comparison to those with no Christmas traditions; however, cerebral perfusion was similar between both groups.

The two groups consisted of 20 participants of which 10 of the participants were assigned to the Christmas group and 10 were assigned to the non-Christmas group. The ‘Christmas group’ consisted of eight men, two women who were ethnic Danes who celebrated Christmas according to Danish Tradition, while those in the ‘non-Christmas group’ were Pakistani, Indian, Iraqi, Turkish, or people of Pakistani decent who were born in Denmark. The Christmas group was the experimental group and the non-Christmas group was the control.

As mentioned previously the researchers used Christmas imagery and regular images to detect the difference in brain activity. In the study, a was used fMRI to localize and record the change in activity in the brain. In the article Hougaards noted that sorrow, disgust, and joy have been isolated to certain cerebral regions within the brain. Patients were scanned with MRI while they were watching a series of image through video goggles. A continual series of eight-four images were displayed for two seconds each and were organized to show Christmas images after six consecutive everyday images that were devoid of any Christmas symbolism. Alternating the images created an interleaved block of stimulation.

Researchers found significant clusters of increased BOLD activation in the sensory motor cortex, the premotor and primary motor cortex, and the parietal lobule (inferior and superior) were found in scans of people who celebrate Christmas with positive associations compared with scans in a group having no Christmas traditions and neutral associations. According to the article, these cerebral areas have been associated with spirituality, somatic senses, and recognition of facial emotion among many other.

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The baseline perfusion scans showed a normal cerebral perfusion of 54 ml/100g/min for both groups. Activation maps from fMRI scans showed an increase of brain activity in the primary visual cortex for both groups of participants when shown images that had a Christmas them compared with the non-Christmas themed photos. However, the Christmas group neural activations had a significant increase specifically in the primary somatosensory cortex when shown the Christmas them images. The brain activation maps also showed activity in other areas of the brain that the Christmas group responded to with a higher activation than the non- Christmas group. These areas include the premotor cortex, left primary motor cortex, bilateral primary somatosensory cortex, right inferior parietal lobule, superior parietal lobule. The non-Christmas group had significantly lower responses to the Christmas images than the Christmas group.

We identified a functional Christmas network comprising several cortical areas, including the parietal lobules, the premotor cortex, and the somatosensory cortex. Activation in these areas coincided well with our hypothesis that images with a Christmas theme would stimulate centers associated with the Christmas spirit. The left and right parietal lobules have been shown in earlier fMRI studies to play a determining role in self-transcendence, the personality trait regarding predisposition to spirituality. Furthermore, 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. There is growing evidence that the somatosensory cortex plays an important role in recognition of facial emotion and retrieving social relevant information from faces. Collectively, these cortical areas possibly constitute the neuronal correlate of the Christmas spirit in the human brain.

We realize that some of our colleagues within the specialties of neuroscience and psychology, who we suspect could be afflicted by the aforementioned bah humbug syndrome, would argue that studies such as the present one overemphasize the importance of localized brain activity and that attempts to localize complex emotions in the brain contribute little to the understanding of these emotions. Citing a paper reporting fMRI evidence of brain activity in frozen salmon,10 representatives of this view have even coined terms for this practice such as ‘blob ology’, ‘neo-phrenology’, ‘neuro-essentialism’, and ‘neuro-bollocks’ (Grinch and colleagues, personal communication). Naturally, in keeping with the good spirit of the holiday, we disagree with these negative perspectives.

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.

The Christmas spirit has eluded science thus far; though well known as a pleasant feeling, its cerebral location and mechanisms are still a mystery. Functional MRI has proved a valuable tool in locating which centres of the brain are active under a given stimulation such as viewing images. This technique has shown on several occasions that complex responses to stimulation evoke a network of activated areas in the brain. What this study adds: this study locates a ‘Christmas spirit’ network in the brain that is activated by images with Christmas themes. The network showed a series of cerebral regions that are more active in people who celebrate Christmas with positive associations compared with people with no Christmas traditions and neutral associations. Although many might find the article in The Journal of Neuroscience a bit difficult to follow, just reading this article in Scientific American will be very informative about this research.

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Christmas Spirit Network in the Human Brain. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
“Christmas Spirit Network in the Human Brain.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
Christmas Spirit Network in the Human Brain. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 Mar. 2024].
Christmas Spirit Network in the Human Brain [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from:
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