Christmas Changes the Brain, According to Science

Christmas Changes the Brain, According to Science
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 14 December, 2022

Christmas is a different time of year. We all tend to carry out activities we don’t do the rest of the time. Our attitudes also change, along with the decoration of our streets and houses. Indeed, it’s a  special season, full of emotional and social stimuli.

It appears that the transformation that occurs around Christmas in our customs and the physical environment affects our brains. In fact, a scientific study has verified that this time promotes a different kind of brain activity. Likewise, the changes in our habits and in the environment modify our minds.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year .”

-Charles Dickens-

Family strolling at Christmas

A study on Christmas and the brain

A group of scientists from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) conducted research on the effects of Christmas on the brain. Their objective was to locate the ‘Christmas spirit’ within brain activity. To do this, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging.

They used two groups of people. One group corresponded to those who’d celebrated Christmas since childhood and had a positive attitude toward the celebration. The other group wasn’t accustomed to celebrating Christmas.

In the first group, activation of certain brain areas was detected when the participants were faced with images or stimuli that evoked Christmas. More specifically, changes were observed in the sensory-motor cortex, the primary and premotor cortex, and the parietal lobe. In the other group, these reactions didn’t occur.

The results suggest that those who brought their own Christmas traditions to mind reacted to them by putting aspects such as their memory and motor sensations into play. Apparently, this time of year activates deep memories and evocations. That’s the reason why the brain seems to present a different activation pattern around this period than at other times of the year.

Christmas experiences

Variations in the environment cause changes in mood. Naturally, this has an effect on our brains. At Christmas, our customs, activities, attitudes, and even the appearance of our houses and streets change. Therefore, to a greater or lesser extent, there’s also a transformation in our minds.

However, it isn’t possible to generalize about the way in which Christmas changes the brain. It depends on each environment and each individual. That said, it’s possible to establish the factors that have the potential to produce these changes.

Purchases and commitments

At this time of year, we often have more social commitments than usual. There are more gatherings, parties, and all sorts of social events. In addition, we spend time shopping for gifts in crowded stores. Put together, this increases stress.

Frequently, those who experience a positive feeling about Christmas also feel a certain sadness when it’s over. They may feel exhausted or empty accompanied by the obligation to return to their usual routine.

Gifts

Christmas and gifts are like bread and butter: they often go together. Both giving and receiving gifts produce emotional satisfaction. Generosity is associated with the release of dopamine and endorphins. This increases feelings of well-being.

It may be that we can’t give all the gifts we’d like to, or that we don’t receive enough ourselves. If so, we may feel disappointed or sad. If you find yourself feeling this way, you should give yourself a little gift or a treat to compensate for your feelings of emptiness.

Contact with others

At Christmas, we tend to establish more contact with others. It’s important that you regulate this well so that it doesn’t become overwhelming, especially if you’re uncomfortable with such intense socializing. Otherwise, you can join in wholeheartedly with the Christmas cheer of others.

Christmas dinner with friends

The excesses

Undoubtedly, this time of year lends itself to excesses. Particularly with regard to spending, eating, and drinking. However, going over the limit usually has consequences, which are often only noticeable in January. Therefore, it’s better to control yourself a little and enjoy the festivities in moderation.

Finally, Christmas is a wonderful time and almost no one is indifferent to it. Having a positive mental and emotional attitude makes it possible to experience it in a healthy way, nurturing the positive changes of the festivities, while regulating everything so that there are no later undesirable effects.

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  • Hougaard, A., Lindberg, U., Arngrim, N., Larsson, H. B. W., Olesen, J., Amin, F. M., Ashina, M., & Haddock, B. T. (2015). Evidence of a Christmas spirit network in the brain: functional MRI study. B M J, 351, 1-6. [h6266]. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6266.
  • Mederos Pérez, M. A. (2011). Vivimos la Navidad. La Libreta.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.