Your Brain on Holiday Music

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. C’mon admit it… you just sang that, didn’t you?  You can thank me later for putting that song in your head because it’s like treating your brain to milk and cookies.

Aside from putting you in the holiday spirit, studies show that your favorite holiday music can be especially beneficial during what is often a busy, stressful time. When you hear – and even better… sing – your favorite holiday songs, you not only improve your mood, you also lower your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels.   

Those holiday songs stimulate the brain’s pleasure circuit, releasing dopamine and serotonin (which are responsible for those happy feelings). Not only do you feel happier, but your brain function is enhanced, too.

Holiday music can even reduce pain.  In a meta-analysis of the effect of music on acute, chronic, or cancer pain intensity, investigators found that patients who listened to music in recovery after surgery needed less morphine to manage their pain. Music therapists have also designed clinical protocols that are effective in helping people manage different forms of pain by helping patients find music that is significant to them.

Research shows that holiday songs are so deeply etched into our brains because, for most of us, they trigger childhood memories. That songs prime us to remember specific events and people is not surprising given how the brain processes music. Music activates both the limbic system, one of the primary emotional regions of the brain, and the precuneus, a part of the cortex involved in the recall of autobiographical memory. Christmas carols strike the chords that resonate with our brain's memory and emotional regions.

The brain benefits of holiday music are partially due to nostalgia. Most of us tend to think of nostalgia as a wistful yearning for the past. But neuroscience tells us that nostalgia does more than take us on a pleasant trip down memory lane. Nostalgia promotes a host of positive mental states and behaviors such as improved mood, increased social connectedness, and a more optimistic outlook on life. It also counteracts feelings of loneliness and anxiety and makes us more generous and altruistic. One reason for this is that nostalgic stories often start with some kind of problem or hurdle to overcome. We remember them because the outcome is positive usually due to the kindness of another person. This inspires a sense of gratitude and feelings of human connectedness.

But, there is a downside. Research shows that hearing any song played over and over can lead to cognitive fatigue and even increased anxiety. The constant song becomes constant "noise" and saturates the brain triggering a negative response.  If you're already dealing with stress, hearing Santa Clause is Coming to Town a million times is likely to exacerbate your stress rather than relieve it. 

Trying to block it out it exhausting and that results in cognitive fatigue which limits focus elsewhere.

And everyone has that one song that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard every time it's played.   The Mirror in the UK polled readers on which song they felt was the most awful and the winner was “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey, 

Here’s the full list:

  1. All I Want for Christmas is You – Mariah Carey
  2. Do They Know It’s Christmas? – Band Aid
  3. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday – Wizzard
  4. Merry Xmas Everybody – Slade
  5. Last Christmas – Wham!
  6. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
  7. Baby It’s Cold Outside – Tom Jones & Cerys Matthews
  8. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Jackson 5
  9. Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt
  10. Jingle Bells – Andrews Sisters

So, how can you strike the right balance of good cheer that doesn't drive you crazy?

Switch up the music. Vary the songs, artists, and genres. Be sure to include instrumentals as well as songs with lyrics. And be sure to pay attention to the volume level.

If all else fails, treat yourself to a new set of ear plugs.


Nostalgia The Seductive Liar


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