Whatever Starbucks and godless secular humanists may be up to, scientists are not waging War on Christmas. Instead, as part of a longstanding annual tradition, the BMJ (formerly, British Medical Journal) decks itself in metaphorical tinsel and gets into the Noel spirit, publishing holiday-themed research. All the studies are real, not hoaxes, using actual data and analysis. They’re just a little … odd, from scientists with tongues planted firmly in cheeks.
Researchers in Denmark, for instance, set out to locate the Christmas spirit in the brain. In doing so, they hoped to discover why feelings of joy and nostalgia related to the holiday are deficient in some people, a condition they christen “bah, humbug syndrome.”
The scientists recruited volunteers, noting whether they celebrate Dec. 25 or not. After sliding them, one at a time, into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tube, the scientists showed the volunteers 84 pictures, evoking Christmas (holiday lights, Santas) or not (streetscapes and the like). “No eggnog or gingerbread was consumed prior to scanning,” the researchers wrote, offering assurance that their results were not compromised by neural reactions to yumminess.
After dividing the participants into equal numbers of Christmas-celebrators and non-yuletiders, the scientists analyzed the fMRIs to see if brain activity in the first group differed from that in the second (mainly Pakistanis, Turks, and other non-Christians). It did, the scientists report. Compared to 10 non-celebrators, 10 Christmas enthusiasts showed higher activity in response to Christmas images in the left primary motor and premotor cortex, which lead to shared emotions by mirroring other people’s movements, as well as in the parietal lobules, which have been linked to a predisposition to spirituality.
Neuroimaging is so notorious for spurious findings, such as when researchers reported interesting patterns of brain activity in a dead salmon, that some neuroscientists have taken to calling it blobology or neuro-bollocks, a term the Copenhagen team attributes to a “personal communication [from] Grinch.” That may explain why, at a Christmas party where the researchers celebrated their findings, colleagues showered them with criticism, which “really dampened the festive mood,” they wrote.
“Although merry and intriguing, these findings should be interpreted with caution,” the scientists acknowledged. “Something as magical and complex as the Christmas spirit cannot be fully explained by, or limited to, the mapped brain activity alone.”
Or as co-author Bryan Haddock, a medical physicist at the University of Copenhagen, said, “You can build a whole theory of what’s going on in the brain,” as neuroimagers tend to do, “and that’s what we play with in this paper.”
As Americans nibble on candy canes and get glazed cherries stuck in their fruitcake-munching molars, they can stop feeling superior to their cousins across the pond. Contrary to stereotype and Austin Powers’ yellow chompers, Americans do not have better teeth than Brits.
Mining US and English health surveys, researchers from the two countries found that the average number of missing teeth was higher in the United States (7.31) than in England (6.97). There was no word on the frequency of dazzling white smiles or minty-fresh breath.
Out for blood
Christmas isn’t Christmas without a trip to the multiplex, but if you can’t get into “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and instead queue up a DVD of a holiday horror flick such as 1980’s “Christmas Evil,” pay attention to your veins: Scary movies can curdle blood. While the term “bloodcurdling” dates to medieval physiology and the belief that fear makes the blood “cold” or congeal, scientists had apparently never thought to test that.
Researchers at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands therefore stepped up. They took blood samples from 24 healthy young volunteers and then had them watch a horror movie followed by an educational one, or vice versa, about a week apart. The researchers took more blood after each viewing. Only one volunteer fainted right away (from the needle, not the movie).
Result: Levels of a clotting molecule called coagulant factor VIII rose in more people after watching the horror movie (57 percent) than after the educational one (14 percent), the team reported. Thank evolution: By increasing production of clotting molecules, a terrified body prepares itself for blood loss in those cases where the threat is real. The scientists don’t indicate whether their next step is to test whether children’s blood curdles at the prospect of sitting on the laps of shopping mall Santas.
Much as these studies renew one’s faith in science, it’s hard to top BMJ’s 2013 Christmas-issue study on the incidence of virgin births. It found that 0.5 percent of American women who gave birth without artificial insemination, IVF, or the like had never had sex. Or so the (usually young) women claimed. And the babies delivered to these virgins were likely to be boys. If that’s not a Christmas miracle, STAT doesn’t know what is.