That warm, fuzzy, Christmassy feeling we get every December is not just in our imagination – it's a physiological change that can actually be located in our brains.
A study published in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal shows how the “Christmas Spirit” is present in five different areas of the brain during the run-up to the festive period, and that all these areas are also associated with spirituality in general.
The researchers, who carried out the study at a hospital affiliated with Copenhagen University, describe the Christmas spirit a “joy and nostalgia mixed with associations to merry feelings, gifts, delightful smells and good food”.
They identified the brain locations by showing 20 volunteers a series of festive images, and then measuring neural activity using magnetic resonance imaging. 10 of the volunteers were regular celebrators of Christmas, while the other 10 never celebrated it and had no emotional attachment to it, but lived in the same area.
The areas that lit up with high levels of activity were the left primary motor and premotor cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobule, and bilateral primary somatosensory cortex.
These cerebral areas have been associated with spirituality, somatic senses, and recognition of facial emotion among many other functions.
For example, the left and right parietal lobules have been shown to play a role in self-transcendence, the personality trait regarding predisposition to spirituality.
But the authors warned against playing around too much with something as “magical” as Christmas: “Although merry and intriguing, these findings should be interpreted with caution," they explained.
Something as magical and complex as the Christmas spirit cannot be fully explained by, or limited to, the mapped brain activity alone.