The Neuroscience Behind Christmas Cheer

Olly Robertson

It is, for many of us, the most wonderful time of the year. “Christmas cheer” is that thing which is often referred to by those who believe December really is the season to be jolly. It’s that feeling of joy, warmth and nostalgia people feel when the jingle bells start jingling. But what is the science behind it?

Evidence of Christmas cheer inside the brain was found during a study run at the University of Denmark in 2015. Twenty people were shown images with either a Christmas or non-Christmas theme while having their brain monitored in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The fMRI machine highlights parts of the brain when there is an increase or decrease in activity in that region. And when there was an increase of activity for this study, that region lit up like … well, a Christmas tree.

When the participants saw photographs of Christmas themed images, such as mince pies, a network of brain regions lit up, leading the researchers to conclude that they had found the hub of Christmas cheer inside the human brain. What the activation in brain regions actually meant, the researchers couldn’t say. One theory was that that network in the brain could be related to memories or spirituality. The scientific understanding of our internal experiences is changing and it now seems likely that Christmas cheer may be an emotion in itself.

What is an emotion?

Many scientists used to think that emotions were pre-programmed reactions, hardwired into human brains. According to the traditional view, when you see Christmas TV adverts, some dedicated part of you (a kind of “happiness circuit”) leaps into action to bring you Christmas cheer.

The happiness circuit was thought to be a single part of the brain responsible for making you feel that warmth in your chest, making your heart beat quickly with joy and forming an expression of happiness on your face – an expression thought to be universal across peoples and cultures.

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