December 17, 2020
Christmas is humanity’s number one reason to be cheerful. That said, this year’s holidays are like no other. The long pandemic lockdown has led to lots of media over the past few weeks talking about how Christmas will be ruined just like the rest of the year. It may be the most difficult year in most people’s living memory, however neuroscience suggests that Christmas could be just the psychological antidote we are looking for. Read on to see why the festive break could lift our spirits when we need it most.
In the first few months of the COVID-19 outbreak the number one concern in the public mind and for governments world-wide, was the direct health threat of the disease. It’s likely fair to say that few people actually predicted that the less direct effects of prolonged lockdowns would become such huge challenges to society overall.
Around the globe countries have been experiencing major and ongoing economic challenges at every level throughout 2020. Perhaps most disconcerting are the widespread reports of the toll on the general public’s psychological and social wellbeing. Sustained isolation and loneliness has brought with it unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression, even for people have never experienced the conditions.
The emotional button for most people this yuletide is the worry of not being able to spend time with friends, family, and loved ones. Indeed the focus of the media has been very much centered around the anticipated frustration and disappointment of this annual celebration, with headlines like ‘It's just not worth it’.
The Guardian actually titled an article: ‘It’s a day like any other. So why have the Christmas Covid rules brought me to tears?’ Even comparing the UK lockdown guidelines to the chaos of Brexit and quoting Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham’s line ‘Call off Christmas!’ But will the coming Noel really be something to dread rather than look forward to? Let’s take a look at the flipside.
History is often our best guide for predicting the future. For people who celebrate it, past Christmas times have often brought the best out people in times of despair. The most iconic example is when German and British soldiers responded to years of misery and hardship in World War I trenches at The Battle of the Somme. Contrary to the will of military leadership, a staggering 100,000 troops from both sides called a remarkable truce to put aside their differences against all odds, in order to share the spirit of Christmas.
Literally this involved ceasing shooting and shelling each other on one day, to sharing festive food, drinks, cigarettes and gifts the next. Some regiments even held international football competitions on the infamously deadly ‘no man’s land’.
Could it be that this winter’s holiday, despite the restrictions, might provide a psychosocial shift, helping to alleviate the grind of confinement? Let’s take a look at why neuroscience research hints that this period may be just what our brains’ need.
The reason this holiday is the season to be jolly seems to come down to what is categorically defined by some neuroscientist as “Christmas cheer”. We all know this can be a powerful feeling of joy, warmth, or nostalgia. The Danes have a specific name for this cozy and partly magical feeling: ‘hygge’. Yet for most people it’s very hard to pin down what this feeling really is, and it’s certainly not the same for everyone.
For this reason researchers at the University of Denmark set out to investigate if there are neural correlates for this feeling inside the biology of our brains. To do this they showed participants festive images to see if they sparked yuletide sensations. They alternated these with completely none festive images. During this time their whole brains were scanned in an fMRI, which accurately monitors cognitive activity across regions throughout the brain via surges in blood flow.
The results showed that even just focusing on imagery of things like Christmas pudding or mince pies caused key brain regions to light up…like a Christmas tree! This included significant activity in neural networks related our sense of spirituality and also for memory. No such activity occurred for the unrelated images.
The study provides some scientific understanding that our past experiences of the holidays typically build-up strong, positive and life-long connections with the things we associate with those special times. It also indicates that Christmas cheer may actually be a distinct form of emotion in itself, allowing us to access a uniquely positive state of mind and novel feelings.
Of course there are also people whose associations are not so positive, dubbed quite poetically as “bah humbug” syndrome! For most of us though, and as witnessed in the trenches of the Somme, this unusual mind state could be a cognitive activator for a radical boost in psychological wellness and unifying social behavior, especially when times are at their worst.
That said, even in this golden age of neuroscience we still just don’t know. This is because emotions are one of the biggest challenges to study, involving far reaching and deeply intertwined neuronal activity spanning across most of the regions of the brain. Its possible that emotions won’t be properly understood until we have AI powerful enough to decode the phenomenally complex and synchronistical interactions of literally billions of brain cells.
So, what’s the takeaway here? Well, on one side the social climate of our current day media is quite pessimistic. On the other side, both history and neuroscience provide at least some objective indications that our life-long relationship with these religious based holidays might be an ideal antidote for our 2020 woes. We will have to wait and see, but solely because it’s Christmas time, we have a special reason to be extra optimistic!
Last but not least, if you have concerns about well-being over the holidays, for yourself or someone you know, here are 5 key tips from Mind - a leading public support service for better mental health.
1. Find ways to connect with others and share experiences
2. Get as much natural light and nature as you can
3. Explore ways of passing the time in winter
4. Look after your physical health
5. Take care with news and information
You can find lots more advice and support resources on their website.
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