• Anusha Iyer, AIT

Your Brain on the Holidays



With the kids jingle-belling and everyone telling you, “be of good cheer,” is the holiday season really the happiest season of all?


With Christmas and Hannukah and Kwanzaa right around the corner, we anticipate hot cocoa, carols and, of course, holiday-themed Disney movies. We can all picture the twinkling strings of holiday lights, the scent of pine needles and the warmth of a crackling fireplace. But what we also all know is the dreaded feeling of stress from last-minute shopping sprees, chaotic dinners with family and stomach aches that come from eating one too many pieces of peppermint bark. With all these emotions running through our bodies, we can’t help but wonder what happens to the brain during the holiday season. Let’s take a trip into the control center: we’re looking at your brain on the holidays.


Surprisingly, there might be an entire network in the human brain dedicated to the holiday spirit. That’s an entire portion of your brain dedicated to gift-wrapping, cocoa sipping, and holiday movie watching! Scientists at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark found evidence of the mini-north pole by accident when they were conducting studies on migraines. The scientists were looking at brain scans when they observed that several regions of the brain activated when people saw classic holiday-themed images.


After this accidental discovery, a team of scientists including Anders Hougaard, research fellow in neurology, Ulrich Lindberg, research fellow in neuroimaging, and Henrik B. W. Larsson, professor of clinical physiology, conducted a more formal study. They gathered 26 participants who were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their Christmas traditions, feelings about Christmas, and ethnicity. After that, participants were shown a series of 84 images in which after six christmas-themed images, six “everyday” images were shown. These alternating sets were described in the published study from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) as “an interleaved block stimulation … where Christmas images are being viewed as ‘stimulation blocks’ interleaved with ‘resting blocks’ of viewing everyday images” (BMJ).


Results from this study showed that the brain had significant neural activation in many participants when shown an image with a Christmas theme. The regions included the occipital lobe (associated with vision), the primary and premotor cortex (associated with movement) and the bilateral primary somatosensory cortex (associated with touch). These regions are further described in the published BMJ study:

“The left and right parietal lobules have been shown...to play a determining role in self transcendence...the frontal premotor cortex is important for experiencing emotions shared with other individuals...and premotor cortical mirror neurons even respond to observation of ingestive mouth actions ….There is growing evidence that the somatosensory cortex plays an important role in recognition of facial emotion and retrieving social relevant information from faces” (BMJ).

However, while the brain reacts to the pleasures of the holidays, it also takes on a load of stress. A 2,000 participant study conducted by OnePoll, an online polling company, shows that 88 percent of Americans feel stressed when celebrating the holidays. Moreover, 85 percent of people admit that they overeat during the holidays, and 39 percent feel stress from purchasing presents.


Among other results, when under stress, the brain releases an MMP-9 enzyme which attacks a synaptic regulatory molecule in the hippocampus, which is the brain structure associated with memory and emotion. This can explain why we find ourselves downcast every once in a while when we should be feeling the holly jolly holiday spirit. Furthermore, in reaction to stress, our brain’s prefrontal cortex shifts into a sort of panicked overdrive during this time of year, and this skyrocketing demand on your brain can decrease memory performance, halt the production of brain cells, and kill old brain cells.


While the holidays are a time to be with our loved ones and enjoy the festivities, it’s important to prioritize mental health during this time, especially during a year like this one. I say that this holiday season, we skip the shopping for distant fifth-cousins we barely know and the painfully awkward family gatherings, and go right to the fuzzy socks and weighted blankets, which bring enough joy to last year-round. It’s a win-win; we can remain socially distant while sparing the stress of the holidays.


Brueck, Hilary. “Why the Holidays Are Stressful for Your Brain and Body, According to Psychologists and Hormone Experts.” Insider, Insider, 23 Dec. 2019, www.insider.com/holiday-stress-changes-body-and-brain-what-to-do-2019-12.


“Holiday Stress and the Brain.” Neurobiology, neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain/holiday-stress-and-brain.


Hougaard, Anders, et al. “Evidence of a Christmas Spirit Network in the Brain: Functional MRI Study.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 16 Dec. 2015, www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h6266.


Howard, Jacqueline. “This Is What The Holiday Season Does To Your Brain.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 25 Dec. 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/holiday-season-brain_n_5672f4e9e4b0dfd4bcc0e9ec.


Porter, Dr. Patrick K. “This Is What Happens to Your Brain with Holiday Stress, According to a Neuroscientist.” Ladders, Ladders, 21 Nov. 2019, www.theladders.com/career-advice/this-is-what-happens-to-your-brain-with-holiday-stress-according-to-a-neuroscientist.


Swns. “Holidays Stress out 88 Percent of Americans, Study Claims.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 6 Dec. 2018, www.foxnews.com/lifestyle/the-holiday-stress-out-88-percent-of-americans-study-claims.

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