4 Things That Happen In Your Brain When You Listen To Holiday Music
Every year, seemingly earlier and earlier, radios begin to fill with holiday classics practically as soon as your Halloween decorations are hung up. Holiday songs top the charts every winter, from Bing Crosby to Mariah Carey, and you can't escape them in shopping malls or on TV until at least New Year. You wouldn't be the only person wondering what happens to your brain when you listen to holiday music over and over and over. It turns out that the answer is neurologically complicated, and involves the brain's love of repetition, a "holiday center" of neurons, and our neurological tendency for mimicry.
Everybody has their own favorite holiday tune — or lack thereof. It turns out that people who have to listen to holiday music on repeat, like those who work in stores over the holidays, have to expend psychological resources on blocking the music out so they can concentrate. And according to the Guardian, Christmas carols were among the music allegedly used by the FBI during the Waco siege in 1993, to break down the defenses of the group.
Whether you love every single iteration of "Jingle Bell Rock" or want to throw your radio out the car window by Dec. 2, though, your brain is doing some fascinating things behind the scenes. Here are four things that happen in your brain when you listen to holiday music.
1. Holiday Music Stimulates The "Holiday Center" Of The Brain
In 2015, Danish scientists conducted experiments to find out if there was a specific center of the brain for emotions and responses to the holiday season, from carols to the smell of pine trees. And intriguingly enough, they found one. "There is a 'Christmas spirit network' in the human brain comprising several cortical areas," the study, published in the British Medical Journal, explained. "This network had a significantly higher activation in a people who celebrate Christmas with positive associations as opposed to a people who have no Christmas traditions and neutral associations."
The holiday center of the brain isn't actually in one place; it's several interlinked bits of your grey matter that activate when you're feeling seasonal, including the motor cortex, the sensory motor cortex and the parietal lobe. They're all concerned with things like the senses and movement, and how we interpret visual, auditory and other kinds of stimuli. Which includes holiday music. So when you hear the opening notes of "White Christmas," particularly if you love the holidays, these are the bits that light up like, well, a Christmas tree.
2. Your Brain Loves The Repetition Of Familiar Tunes
Why do we keep loving holiday music even when we hear it year after year? It turns out that the repetitious nature of the music of the season is part of its charm, at least to some of us. Neuroscientist Brian Rabinovitz argued in 2017 that holida music in particular is appealing because of our pattern-making brains. We carry expectations of the "patterns" of well-loved seasonal tunes and their charming, easy structure, with tensions and releases (think the high notes in any Mariah Carey holiday tune). We then experience neural pleasure when those expectations are met every time.
"Hearing something you know very well, you already have strong expectations. You’re making these predictions, having this moment of tension and then realizing the prediction was correct," said Rabinovitz. Which is likely why remixes of classic holiday songs can sometimes fall flat.
3. ...Up To A Point
If you've ever experienced working in a store over the holidays under a relentless stream of cheerful music, you may not think this repetition is so, well, pleasant. It turns out that there's a breaking point in our brains; over-familiarity with even the nicest holiday tune can still turn into rage and annoyance. At that point, we hit "information overload": our brains are officially experiencing too much stimuli, emotional and otherwise.
Human behavior professor Melody Wilding told Inc in 2017 that over-saturation is the key behind why holiday music can be annoying AF, as are negative associations. "If you're already worried about money, work, or seeing family during the holidays, the constant inundation of cheerful tunes may reinforce your stress instead of relieving it," she noted. If we start to hear songs repeatedly, we may also lose hold of the specific emotional connections that drove us to repeat them in the first place. Hence why you fall out of love with a song after playing it 400 times; the brain just doesn't connect to it in the same way.
4. Our Brains Want To "Mirror" Its Rhythms
Ready for things to get a bit weird? The link between the music we hear and the emotion we feel — nostalgia, the glow of memory, Grinch-like annoyance — may be down to neurons in the brain known as "mirrors". Mirror neurons are what help us to copy others and experience empathy; they set off a signal both when we do something and when we see somebody do something. (This is why you feel a sympathetic wince of pain when you see somebody shut their finger in a door.) And it turns out they may be part of our response to holiday music, and emotive music in general.
Recent research has found that emotional response to music often takes the form of "mirror' reactions in the brain; the body wants to move, to sing along, to mimic what's coming out of the speaker. This is likely why dancing and karaoke are so universally popular. Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni told Psychology Today in 2018 that mirror neurons flare when we listen to things; one study, he said, "[showed] activity in the mouth motor area when participants are simply listening to tones." The emotions we read into music are "mirrored" by our brains, and so we start to feel nostalgic when they appear on our radios.
Whether you want to dance around the kitchen when the first strains of "Last Christmas" come on, or go into hibernation until February, your brain is definitely behind your reaction. Maybe put some noise-cancelling headphones on your wishlist.