'Tis the Neuron: New Study Isolates the Brain's Christmas Network


The holidays are a time for gifts under the tree, milk and cookies by the hearth and perhaps a full fMRI scan of your cerebral blood flow pattern.

Because, let's face it, there's a lot going on inside the holiday-afflicted brain. Festive decorations spring up all over town, Christmas music bleeds in through every speaker and, the next thing you know, you're either boiling over with holiday cheer or Scrooging your way through seasonal miasma.

Sure, it's not the typical domain of neuroscience, a team of Danish researchers recently set out to chart the brain's "Christmas spirit network" and their results are published in the science journal BMJ.

Researchers rounded up 26 healthy test subjects from in and around Copenhagen: 10 with routine Christmas traditions, 10 without and they excluded six individuals for either weak or negative Christmas associations. It's worth pointing out that all 10 members of the "Christmas group" were ethnic Danes steeped in Danish holiday traditions. The 10 members of the "non-Christmas group" consisted of seven Pakistani, Indian, Iraqi and Turkish expatriates and three locally born individuals of Paklistani descent.

The researchers subjected both groups to a mix of Christmas-themed and neutral images. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they were able to observe increased activity in the Christmas-afflicted brains. Specifically, the holiday stimuli activated the sensory motor cortex, the premotor and primary motor cortex, and the parietal lobule. These brain areas tie into a number of different cognitive functions, including spirituality, somatic senses, and recognition of facial emotion.

So you can see why all of that culturally-weighted stimuli summons such strong feelings of joy and nostalgia — at least for folks who've undergone the appropriate cultural programing. The study authors stress that other festive events deserve study as well, perhaps leading to an eventual transcultural neuroscience of "seasonal disturbances."