Catching The Spirit
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by three Christmas spirits. Scrooge is an unlikeable character who overworks his sole employee, yells at charity personnel, rejects family dinner invitations and seems to loathe life in general. In three dreams, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come. In the company of these apparitions, Scrooge revisits his lonely past, recognizes the first traces of greed that will replace love in his life, visits scenes of happiness occurring without him in the present, and eavesdrops on his own future death (where people seem pleased with his passing). Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day, realizes that all this occurred in a single night, becomes a changed man and vows to keep Christmas alive in his heart all year long.
The Christmas spirit has been a widespread phenomenon for centuries, usually characterized as feelings of joy mixed with nostalgia, merriment, gifts, delightful smells and lots of good food. In 2015 BMJ reported on a groundbreaking study performed to detect and localize the Christmas spirit in the human brain using functional MRI (fMRI). This study involved 10 healthy people from the Copenhagen area who routinely celebrated Christmas and 10 healthy people from the same area with no Christmas traditions.
The brain, along with the spinal cord, comprises the body’s central nervous system. This is the major control network for the body’s functions and much of the brain’s physiologic task involves receiving information from the rest of the body, interpreting the data and then guiding the body’s response to it. For example, the brain receives input and recommends responses to odors, light, sounds and pain. The brain also helps perform vital involuntary operations such as breathing, maintaining blood pressure, and releasing hormones. [If these functions are not regulated it may result in abnormal breathing (ICD-10-CM code R06.9), lowered (code R03.1) or elevated (code R03.0) blood pressure, or long term drug therapy (code Z79.899).]
Medical technology has come so far in recent years that it’s now possible for imaging scans to dissect the body into wafer-thin pictures and create three-dimensional models of organs and tissues. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has become a standard tool for radiology studies because it provides high resolution images with good contrast between different tissues. The discovery that MRI could be made sensitive to brain activity, in addition to brain anatomy, is only about 20 years old.
fMRI is a noninvasive technique for measuring and mapping brain activity, making use of a special signal called blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) contrast. Blood flowing through the brain carries oxygen on hemoglobin. Hemoglobin molecules also carry iron, and therefore have a magnetic signal. When one area of the brain is more active, it initially uses up a lot of oxygen in the blood. At this point, the brain dilates local blood vessels to restore the oxygen supply. The MRI machine can detect the difference in signal that results from this increase in blood flow. As a result, fMRI studies are actually looking at how blood oxygen levels change and correlating this activity to nerves firing.
But back to the Danish study participants. First, all subjects completed a questionnaire about their Christmas traditions and feelings associated with Christmas. Participants were then scanned with MRI while they were watching a series of 84 images through video goggles. Images were staggered to include 6 Christmas-related images followed by 6 everyday images. Although participants were informed that different images would be presented, none were aware of the focus on the Christmas spirit. Upon analyzing the results, the scientists observed significant clusters of changes in brain activity when participants viewed the Christmas images (perhaps ICD-10-CM code R94.02, Abnormal brain scan). According to the findings:
We identified a functional Christmas network comprising several cortical areas, including the parietal lobules, the premotor cortex, and the somatosensory cortex. Activation in these areas coincided well with our hypothesis that images with a Christmas theme would stimulate centers associated with the Christmas spirit…Collectively, these cortical areas possibly constitute the neuronal correlate of the Christmas spirit in the human brain.
Understanding how the Christmas spirit works as a neurological network could provide insight into an interesting area of human neuropsychology and be a powerful tool in treating ailments such as “bah humbug syndrome.” Comparative studies of these patterns will also be imperative in studying other seasonal disturbances, related to, for example, Easter, Chanukah, or Diwali. This study could therefore be an important first step in transcultural neuroscience and the associations humans have with their festive traditions.
The authors also note that their Christmas photographs inevitably included traditional Christmas colors, and state that they cannot rule out that they have simply uncovered a neural pathway for processing shades of red and green. “Bringing these issues up, however, really dampened the festive mood,” the authors write. “Therefore we, in the best interest of the readers of course, decided not to ruin the good Christmas cheer for everyone by letting this influence our interpretation of the study.” And in the immortal words of Charles Dickens:
“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”