Ho ho ho! Danish researchers image the Christmas spirit with fMRI

Do they know it's Christmas? The 1980s Christmas hit leveraged that rhetorical question for charity, but now, researchers in Denmark have taken a more literal approach, using fMRI to search for the Christmas spirit in the brains of a small group of Copenhageners.

The research—more in the spirit of the season than in service to hard science—showed participants images of Christmas themes alternating with similar but non-Christmas-y images, comparing the real-time scans of 10 healthy people who routinely celebrate Christmas with those of 10 who have no Christmas traditions.

The results didn’t disappoint.

Compared with the control group, members of the experimental group had their brains lit up like a fiber-optic Christmas tree.

Scientifically speaking, the response manifested as “significant clusters of increased blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) activation in the sensory motor cortex, the premotor and primary motor cortex, and the parietal lobule (inferior and superior),” according to the authors, who were led by Anders Hougaard of the Danish Headache Centre and the University of Copenhagen.

In their study report, published in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, the authors note that these cerebral areas are associated with spirituality, somatic senses and recognition of facial emotion.

However, further research is necessary “to understand this and other potential holiday circuits in the brain.”

But they weren’t done saying “Happy Holidays” with their findings yet.

“Throughout the world, we estimate that millions of people are prone to displaying Christmas spirit deficiencies after many years of celebrating Christmas. We refer to this as the ‘bah humbug’ syndrome,” they write.

“Location of the Christmas spirit could contribute to a more general understanding of the brain’s role in festive cultural traditions, making a medical contribution to cross-cultural festivities and goodwill to all.”

In case anyone reading the study misses the holly jolly spirit ornamenting it, the authors include a warning worthy of Dickens’s cheerfully fastidious Bob Cratchit: 

“Although merry and intriguing, these findings should be interpreted with caution.”

Pour yourself an eggnog and enjoy the whole thing.