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Christmas Spirit, Bah Humbug Syndrome, Traced to Brain Activity

  • Jessica Berman

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters Sasha, and Malia, and Michelle's mother Marian Robinson, react as they light the National Christmas Tree during the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony at the Ellipse in Washington, Dec. 3, 2015.

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters Sasha, and Malia, and Michelle's mother Marian Robinson, react as they light the National Christmas Tree during the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony at the Ellipse in Washington, Dec. 3, 2015.

For some people, Christmas is a magical time of year, filled with feelings of warmth, excitement and generosity. For others, Christmastime carries no particular significance, in some cases even causing annoyance or despair. Researchers have located the source of the feelings of Christmas joy or disgust to a number of regions in the brain that may explain reactions to this festive time of year.

Danish researchers believe they have traced the Christmas spirit – either feelings of warmth and joy or what they playfully call the “bah humbug” syndrome – to a number of areas of the brain.

They assembled two groups of volunteers. One group, which they called the Christmas group, comprised ten ethnic Danes who celebrate Christmas.

The second, non-Christmas group was made up of ten people, including individuals of Pakistani, Iraqi, Indian and Turkish descent, with no tradition of celebrating the holiday.

Using high-tech fMRI imaging, researchers scanned the brains of all the subjects while showing them both holiday-inspired images and ordinary ones.

In the first group, a “Christmas spirit network” appeared - five areas of the brain that lit up. That neural activity is associated with spirituality, experiencing emotions shared by other people and mouth actions suggesting pleasure in eating meals with loved ones.

Similar responses were not seen in the non-Christmas group.

Bryan Haddock is a medical physicist at a hospital affiliated with Copenhagen University.

“When you have a reaction to Christmas and decorations are around you and the scenery you are looking at, there is definitely something that happens. We’re able to catch it on scanner. There is something that goes on in the brain when you see something that puts you in the Christmas mood," said Haddock.

The findings were published in the British Medical Journal. At this point, Haddock says it’s hard to generalize the study’s conclusions to other festive occasions.

“Now that we’ve seen where it is in the brain, what can we say? Can we say that some people are missing something, can we say that some people have an extra something, can we say that this is the festive center, can we say that this is something unique to Christmas? These are questions that we actually can’t answer," he said.

So for the time being…

“Merry Christmas, however you take that.”

“Yes. Merry Christmas to you.”

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