How a little Christmas spirit can be good for you

Faced with a disappointing combination of mild wet weather, long working days and the frustrating realisation that Costa have changed their Black Forest Hot Chocolate recipe (spoiler alert it’s no where near as tasty); this year Christmas spirit has so far eluded me. But, this mild winter malaise did get me thinking. What causes seasonal nostalgia, what does it look like in your brain and does it serve any beneficial purpose? So please enjoy a bit of Brain Bank festive research as we search for the true spirit of Christmas.

It has been suggested that the key to Christmas spirit may be familiarity and a sense of nostalgia for times long gone. Indeed, what gets the festive juices flowing more than cheesy Christmas movies, twinkling lights and festive family gatherings – experiences we most likely all share and repeat year after year. Krystine Batcho, nostalgia expert and professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York, thinks that this bittersweet sense of seasonal nostalgia really embodies the Christmas spirit and that this feeling may also hold some emotional benefit.

But what exactly is nostalgia?

There was a time when nostalgia was though of as a physical illness. This was exemplified by feelings of home sickness experienced by young soldiers serving away from their families for the first time, often culminating in varying physical symptoms including anorexia resulting from loss of appetite. However, we now appreciate that nostalgia is actually linked with a range of emotions, both positive and negative. One study suggests that the predominant profile of nostalgia is a mix of happiness and sentimentality but, it is also recognised that this can be tempered by the sadness of loss and yearnings for a different time. One thing that is pretty much agreed upon however is that the feeling of nostalgia is universal, cutting across cultures, historical periods and developmental stages – even a child can be nostalgic.

Krystine thinks that nostalgia can also be beneficial. Specifically, she suggests that it helps us to maintain a constant sense of identity in the face of large and often traumatic life changes. It provides us with a tangible link to our own personal past and helps us remember who we are. In fact nostalgia is thought to peak in early adulthood, a time when transition and change can become a big part of our lives (think marriage, college, new jobs!).

The holiday season in particular can evoke strong feelings of nostalgia due to repeated experiences shared year on year. This is especially true in regard to relationships. So many of our holiday experiences centre around interpersonal relationships, family gatherings, religious traditions and cultural customs. Think of the festive classic “Driving home for Christmas” and the nostalgic feelings it summons up regarding reuniting with loved ones for the festive season. In fact, this form of nostalgia can help decrease feelings of loneliness by helping people feel connected to family again, even when they are not physically present.

So what is happening in our brains when we experience festive nostalgia?

One study by Kentaro Oba, from the Department of Frontier Health Science, Division of Human Health Science, Graduate School of Tokyo Metropolitan University, shows a relationship between memory and reward systems in the brain, specifically in relation to childhood nostalgia. This study observes co-activation of both the hippocampal formation and ventral striatum during nostalgic experiences. The connection also appeared to be stronger in people who report feeling a strong sense of nostalgia. This suggests that hippocampal memory and ventral striatum reward systems may work together to produce the beneficial and rewarding feelings linked with nostalgia. The researchers suggest that memory retrieval via the hippocampus during nostalgia can trigger a cascade of reward processes including activity in the hippocampal-VTA (ventral tegmental area) loop and culminating in release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It is therefore speculated that, based on the function of this loop, memory and dopaminergic reward during nostalgia may be involved in psychological resilience. Specifically nostalgia strengthens the association between an autobiographical memory and the feeling of reward. This cycle can induce feelings of positivity and may help those experiencing nostalgia to overcome adversity.

Finally, when it comes to the Christmas spirit one group of researchers from Denmark used functional magnetic resonance imaging to pinpoint how festive imagery can affect the brain. Although only four people took part in this unusual study, the work suggests that festive feelings may be linked with activation of the frontal, parieto-occipital and subcortical brain regions.

Perhaps Christmas is all in the mind but this is proof enough for me that festive feelings are probably good for you – so pass me another mince pie I think E.T is on TV….

Post by: Sarah Fox



Top ten Astronomy fails

In this post I have decided to inject a bit of comedy and concentrate on some of the funny and embarrassing things that have happened to me or to others whilst trying (and sometimes failing) to do astronomy. I must begin with a confession: many of the methods I use to observe the stars have been learned through mistakes and failure some of which are infuriating and others hilarious. So, without further delay here are my ten most embarrassing, costly and idiotic astronomy fails.

1. Right place right time, wrong year.
About a year ago I was setting up my scope, which is electronically controlled. In order to work properly, it must know your precise location, time and the position of at least one star in the sky. After inputting this data, I began locating my first target but there was a problem, the telescope moved below the horizon. However, I knew from my sky map that the target was about 10 degrees above the horizon. I spent about 2 hours re-aligning my scope with known stars but still the problem persisted. Eventually, I decided to start setting the telescope up from scratch when I noticed the date I inputted was wrong…very wrong! The year was 2015 but I typed in 20015, an error of 18000 years. Over this period of time, stars move substantially around the sky, familiar constellations will morph into new shapes and the polar axis of the Earth’s spin will also change. To be honest, I was shocked the telescope had data on star locations this far in the future!

2. A long trip for nothing.
This mistake is also mine. I planned a long trip into the peak district to do some dark sky astronomy. After a 90-minute drive I realised I forgot my telescope’s counterweight bar. Without that single steel bar, no astronomy could happen. I arrived home later that night and didn’t speak of my error for the next two days.

3. The ultimate light pollution blocker.
Many years ago when I was just starting my hobby I wanted to show some of my family and friends what great things could be seen through the telescope eyepiece. There was an ulterior motive of course, I wanted to make sure Christmas presents would benefit my astronomy hobby not my sock draw. I had lined the finder scope on the Orion nebula and started searching for it in the main scope. I noticed the sky was particularly black and I started explaining how my light pollution filter (a recent purchase) was great at removing the orange skyglow from the streetlights. A few minutes later and in front of everyone, my friend gleefully removed the lens cap from the end of the telescope explaining how this was the ultimate light pollution filter, unfortunately it also filters out all other forms of light!

4. The Walnut filter.
Earlier this year a stargazer was observing Venus low in the southwest. After a short time he noticed that the planet started showing very interesting distortions which he attributed to freak atmospheric effects. Most astronomers are familiar with the shimmering effect the atmosphere has when observing planets, but this was different. Unfortunately before he could conclude a new scientific observation, he took his eye away from the eyepiece and noticed that Venus had moved behind a nearby Walnut tree. The light was passing between its branches and diffracting, causing the strange effect.

5. That’s not Jupiter!
I usually find that people are quite excited to discover something new about the night sky, so perhaps this next story is just the exception which proves this rule. A few years ago, I was walking home with my girlfriend when I pointed to a bright point of light in the sky and said ‘Look there’s Jupiter’.  A woman passing by interjected saying, ‘no it’s not!’ I was quite shocked and politely said that I had already seen it in binoculars and in a telescope so I was quite sure. To which she replied that it was just a bright star and that if it were Jupiter you would see its disk and the great red spot. I didn’t have a pair of binoculars on me so I suggested she take a look using binoculars when she gets home. I wanted to mention that because Jupiter is very distant from us it appears as a bright star, but you can see its disk even with a cheap pair of binoculars. Unfortunately, she was not open to furthering our discussion so we left it there. I went home thinking that before I knew where the planets were or what they looked like in the sky I assumed that they were too faint to see. She assumed they would be so obvious that they would not need to be pointed out in the sky. I am not counting her misconception about Jupiter as the astronomy fail but here unwillingness to consider what other people are saying certainly deserves a place on this list!

For a German Equatorial mounted telescope like the one above, the counterweights allow the telescope to move easily around its polar axis. If you remove them, bad things will happen.

6. Don’t forget the counterweights.
An astronomer had set up his scope (a large and heavy 10 inch diameter Schmidt-Cassegrain) and began to align his kit. This involved kneeling down under the scope and adjusting the angle of the mount so that it pointed towards the Earth’s north celestial pole. Sadly for him, he forgot to attach the counterweights to the mount and consequently, the telescope swung round and crashed into his head, smashing his glasses, breaking the camera attached to the telescope and probably leaving him seeing stars. This is quite a graphic reminder to always put counterweights on your mount before the telescope to avoid this type of accident.

7. A burning passion for solar observing.
I’m not sure when or where this happened but this story is certainly part of astronomy folk law. An astronomer was safely observing the Sun with a properly attached Solar filter over the front of the telescope – solar observing without the correct kit could result in instant and permanent blindness. However, despite being safety conscious, after a short time he noticed a painful sensation on his head. Unfortunately he had left the finder scope without any lens caps and it acted like a magnifying glass – burning a small painful spot onto his scalp.

8. Temperature difficulties
In order to get the best performance out of a telescope, you must first allow it to cool down to ambient temperature. This reduces turbulent air around the telescope and produces a clearer image. Unfortunately, as a telescope cools down other issues can arise. An astronomer was waiting for his equipment to cool down when the metal screw that holds the telescope onto its mount contracted just enough to release the telescope tube. The resulting crash smashed both the telescope and the £2000 camera attached to it. Take home message, always check your connections after cooling your scope!

9. Hubble space telescope error
This is the most expensive mistake on the list, you may even be aware of it. Nowadays, we take the ground-breaking image quality of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) for granted. When it was launched in 1991, engineers found that its main mirror was very slightly flatter near its edge (an error of 2.2um or 0.0022mm). This meant that it could not focus light precisely at one point, reducing the overall image quality and leaving a $4 billion telescope almost useless. The cause of the problem was mainly down to NASA relying on test data from only one instrument. To solve the problem NASA replaced the camera with a new version containing a corrective lens that compensated for the incorrect mirror. The cost of which involved commissioning new imaging equipment, an extra shuttle launch and losing the opportunity to use the HST for high-contrast imaging for two years.

HST’s misshaped mirror was only corrected two years after launch with a new, specially designed camera.

10. Great expectations.
This one is an error many newcomers to the hobby make, partly because of some pretty dodgy marketing – see the unobtainable views pictured on the very basic telescope above. Put simply, it is the expectation that a small telescope operated by someone with little experience will produce celestial views equaling the HST. If you search for a beginner telescope online and run through its reviews there will be a number complaining of blurry images, poor zoom and undefined galaxies. These limitations are sadly just unavoidable consequences of living under a turbulent atmosphere or owning a telescope that doesn’t have the HST’s 2.4m diameter aperture. In the end, I class this as one of the most damaging errors here because for those who make it astronomy becomes a frustration rather than a fascination. However, once you get familiar with the capabilities of your telescope/binoculars you quickly start to appreciate the significance of those faint smudges of light!

So there we are, conclusive evidence that astronomy doesn’t always go to plan even when the weather behaves itself. If you have any other interesting stories please put them in the comments. Have a great Christmas and don’t knock yourself out with a non-counterweighted telescope!

Post by: Daniel Elijah