»ORIGINALLY POSTED DECEMBER 2011
Happy Solstice everybody! As James Brown (above) puts it, it’s time to hitch up your reindeer and go straight to the ghetto! This is because it’s time for Part 2 of my…
…SCIENCE-OF-CHRISTMAS SPECIAL! Woo-hoo! (Again)
Last time out things were, I suppose, a bit morbid. This time you will be happy to learn that they are merely nihilistic. All the same, I am again supplying musical accompaniment and helpful advice. Because I am (still) a good person.
So here you are. My scientific advice for Christmas, Part 2…
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#4. Make time to rediscover the childlike wonder of Christmas scenery
I think Crazy Frog put it best when he sang (to the tune of Jingle Bells) “Ring ding ding, Ring ding ding, Ring ding ding da-ding (Ba)” in this lovely Christmassy ditty from 2005.
As you can see, so moving was that piece of amphibious Yuletidery, that this guy rigged up his Christmas lights so that they kept time with the music. Such is the wonder of this time of year.
Everyone gets a little carried away. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, a time for children, charity, goodwill, peace on Earth, and…for academics to shoe-horn Christmas concepts into otherwise unremarkable works of scholarship.
Isn’t that simply magical? Personally, I would have been delighted had these actually been real Christmas lights that — somehow — made it inside somebody’s gastrointestinal tract. In fact, I got quite excited when I read the first line of the paper:
A 66-year-old woman on peritoneal dialysis for end-stage renal disease secondary to diabetic nephropathy was admitted on Christmas Day with suspected osteomyelitis of her left third toe.
Now I know people get drunk at Christmas, but I never thought anyone would become so inebriated as to eat a full set of Christmas lights, still switched on. However, it quickly became apparent that no such feat had been achieved. Instead, the medics merely discovered that her kidney medication contained a rare metal called lanthanum carbonate hydrate, which happens to be photo-opaque. This means that it shows up in x-rays in the speckled way as shown above.
Accordingly, the medics duly took a few more x-rays in order to see if they could
get a cheap paper published complete their examination of this woman.
The authors suggest that their discovery (ahem) will help avoid future false alarms when patients taking this form of medication are suspected of having ingested barium or lead. Nonetheless, they must have figured they’d get a better readership if they mentioned something seasonal (after all, the patient was admitted on Christmas Day), and so incorporate “Christmas lights” into the paper title. Which was nice. Albeit highly misleading.
It turns out that academic papers do this all the time. Here is an example of a type of formation of skin-folds on a human back (from a recent paper in the journal Clinics in Dermatology). See if you can guess what this pattern is called…
Yep, it’s a “Christmas Tree pattern“. That should improve the hit rate.
Feel free to print out these images and send them to your friends with suitable holiday greetings. It’s what memories are made of.
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#5. Learn to control your hormones
I think Cyndi Lauper put it best when she sang “Come on and hold my hips a little longer, As we do the Christmas conga…Bonga, bonga, bonga” in this lovely Christmassy album track, released during her admittedly difficult Sisters of Avalon period.
I don’t know what you think, but to me the conga is a particularly primeval form of dancing. Just picture it. A chain of people grabbing one another from behind, pulling each another’s hips backwards and forwards, sweating and gyrating, all the while pretending to be partaking in an innocent forward-moving samba-based side-step. The sickos.
But it turns out that such biological choreography is quite appropriate for the festive season. This is because Christmas itself is “an event driven by our hormones“. At least this is according to a recent Editorial (yes, Editorial!) in the prestigious Journal of Neuroendocrinology.
According to the journal’s editor, Christmas is unique among festivals in being associated with a class of emotions all of its own (such as “feeling Christmassy“) and in being difficult to re-enact convincingly at the ‘wrong’ time of year (such as after a loved one recovers from a long period of illness). All round, it appears that the experience of Christmas (or, perhaps, Christmassiness) is somehow linked to our experience of environmental factors, such as time and space. Hence, it could be that such feelings are subject to an annual neurohormonal anticipation-hedonism-torpor cycle which reaches a zenith during the festive season.
The Editor even provides a nice diagram to highlight his theory:
While slightly comical in the context of Christmas (perhaps), the overall idea here is of genuine scientific interest. This is because hormonal rhythms are ordinarily studied across hours or days, rather than across seasons. Nonetheless, some aspects of hormonal activity do indeed appear to be subject to circannual rhythms. Developing theoretical models that account for this could be important. They may have a range of heretofore poorly understood implications, such as in predicting the experience of diseases like rheumatoid arthritis or the pattern of human fertility across time.
So don’t blame yourself if you feel funny during the festive season. Your mood and behaviour, and proneness to conga-dancing, may genuinely be different at this time of year, being based as they are on circannual variations in hormones.
Or, maybe that should be Ho- Ho- Ho-rmones!
(Sorry! That was bad. I’m nearly finished though…)
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#6. Exculcate yourself: Santa Claus (almost certainly) does not exist
I think Homer & Jethro put it best when they sang “He’s been taking trips since 1583, He can take a trip without LSD“, in their lovely 1968 Christmassy duet, Santa Claus, The Original Hippie.
So what of the history of Santa Claus? Well, first the bad news: according to some academics, the cultural narrative of Mr Claus has a variety of negative effects on children, as well as on society as a whole. A 2004 editorial in the journal The Psychiatrist notes that:
Some psychoanalysts believe that Santa is a harmful lie that threatens a child’s trust and that confiscating Santa once a child believes in him is like stealing his transitional object.
Oo-er. That sounds pretty bad. Meanwhile, a number of business academics have highlighted the role of Santa Claus in promoting a commercialization culture, in which the image of Santa helps shape a collective popular memory that serves as a catalyst for contemporary marketing campaigns:
Consumers’ recollections of Santa Claus are carried from the past but tied to the modern-day idea of Christmas. Coca-Cola’s image of Santa Claus perpetuates the Christmas story and the consumption practices associated with Christmas. During 1933-1966, the practice and expression of Christmas was shifting from a religious holiday to a consumption celebration…
Santa Claus has been used to sell everything from soap, to typewriters, to tobacco, to soft drinks as well as to cast a positive hue on department stores and malls that hire him.
Moreover, the idea that Santa lavishes gifts upon ‘good’ children reinforces the idea that poor children, who receive fewer or smaller gifts, must be ‘bad’.
Okay, then, so now for the good news. The good news is…Santa Claus DOESN’T EXIST!
Or, to be more accurate: there is no scientific evidence to support claims that Santa Claus DOES exist.
And who says so? Well, academics of course. Take a bow, Martha E. F. Highfield of California State University, writing in this month’s Advanced Emergency Nursing Journal. In a paper entitled “Here Comes Santa Claus”: What is the Evidence?, Highfield points out the following startling realities:
What is the evidence for [Santa] and what is its relative strength? We have no meta-analyses, no systematic reviews of the literature, no evidence-based clinical guidelines, and no randomized controlled trials (RCTs)…
…we haven’t generated any RCTs that I can find in an online library search of PubMed, CINAHL, ERIC, and other databases…
…Sadly no examples of [systematic reviews or evidence-based clinical practice guidelines] related to [Santa] could be found at any of the usual sources: Cochrane library, Joanna Briggs Institute, or National Guidelines Clearinghouse.
[Personally, I think it is great that Emergency Nursing researchers spend their time writing academic papers like this. Makes a change from all those Christmas-lights-in-a-gastrointestinal-tract stuff.]
So it turns out that it’s all one big cult. A cultural practice that is transmitted socially through ritual and shared delusion. A belief system that has self-replicated for centuries, but which has evolved to adapt to selective pressures in an ever-fluctuating sociobiological environment. A meme, if you will.
And it’s not the first one I’ll wager…
So, don’t feel you have to forever bear the brunt of the Santa cult at Christmas time. It is essentially arbitrary, after all…
EDIFYING UPDATE, 2013: When I first posted the above, David kindly alerted us via the Comments section as to the wooliness of the whole QI-Mithras episode, as follows:
Very nice blog! A shame though that you have given space to that QI clip: it may interest you to know that the QI researchers are on record as saying that the Mithras sequence was their most embarrassing mistake in the entire series.
Every single “fact” that Stephen Fry delivers is wrong – see this excellent Quora answer:http://www.quora.com/Were-there-other-mythologized-stories-similar-to-Jesus-before-or-near-the-time-of-his-death
You see, Comments rock!
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And that’s it for this year’s scientific advice for Christmas! Thank you for listening!
Have a very Happy Year-End/Winterval/Festive Season/Solstice/December Break/Lights Festival/Holidays
and a bright and prosperous New Year (Gregorian)!
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Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.