The Science of Nostalgia

Can you remember your high school prom? The lights pulsing on the floor, the watered-down punch in the corner and the fluffy floor-length gown that covered your Converse sneakers? Or how about your college graduation? The big smiles from your family, the decorated cap and finally holding the diploma you worked so hard to get?

If these phrases bring back fragments of memories, don’t be afraid to take a leap and delve into the fond experiences of your past. You’ve just come face to face with a bit of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is simply defined as the longing for times gone by and is one of the most common emotions humans experience. However, this wistful feeling has experienced quite the psychological revolution in the twenty-first century. The term first came about in 1688, when it was described by Swiss doctor Johannes Hoffer as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” It was classified as a dangerous illness, a risky side-effect of taking homesickness to the extremes. In the 20th century, nostalgia was classified as a “mentally repressive compulsive disorder.” It was not widely studied until the early 2000s when it was discovered that humans were actually reminiscing about universal topics—friendship, family, music, songs and holidays.

Once the term “nostalgia” was deemed harmless, people felt more comfortable reporting that they experienced it at least once a week (more than 50 percent experience it three to four times a week). It’s currently a widely used technique in marketing and it’s the reason Buzzfeed puts out so many “you know you were born in the ‘90s when” listicles. But did you know that nostalgia does more than remind you of the jelly shoes you used to own? Here are a few facts you never knew about nostalgia.

1. Nostalgia Is A Neurological Pattern

You probably already know that the brain is an extremely complex organ that’s capable of controlling several systems within the body. With nostalgia, the brain is combining memories with your reward systems—which explains why you feel warm and happy when you look back at past times.

Think back to a meaningful place in your life. Maybe it’s a childhood home or the venue of your wedding. When you begin thinking fondly back to that location, you fire off neurons devoted to emotional processing. There is a strong tie between memory and emotion in your brain that is unique to the feeling of nostalgia.

In 2017, The National Trust performed a study to test nostalgic reaction. They asked participants to bring in a photo of their favorite place. The brain was scanned as each person looked at the photo. They found that nostalgia triggers the amygdala, which processes memories; the Medial Prefrontal Cortex which processes rewards or positive feelings; and the Parahippocampal Place, which processes the feeling of identity and self. That’s a lot of power for a memory of times gone by.

2. Nostalgia Can Keep You Warm

According to a 2012 study conducted by the University of Southampton, nostalgia has the power to make us feel warmer in the colder months. People tend to feel more nostalgic in the winter months anyway since there are so many ties to holidays. Psychologists find that holiday nostalgia is able to bring people together, especially when they cannot be together. This is probably why the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is so popular during the holidays.

People also can find warmth and comfort in cold environments when they think back to pleasant memories. This means that nostalgia has the power to bring us physical comfort when faced with inhospitable situations. In these winter months, journey back in your memories to times of family laughter by the fire, a full head of luscious locks before the hair loss kicked in, or a romantic stroll of the boardwalk of your favorite beach. Researchers haven’t quite figured out how your brain translates these memories into warmth, but they believe it comes from the brain’s reward system.

3. Nostalgia Can Highlight the Positive and Negative

Nostalgia always seems to be represented with positive feelings and emotions, but this isn’t always the case. The Affective Neuroscience Personality Scale finds that people who show a greater tendency for sadness are more likely to experience regular nostalgia. This is probably because their brain is more actively processing emotions. Nostalgia can also be used as a defense against complicated emotions and, in the United States, allows people to avoid feelings of guilt or shame. The more nostalgic a person is, the less guilt they tend to express for past crimes.

 

Nostalgia can be an incredibly powerful tool—one of the reasons advertisers use it so heavily in their marketing campaigns. When we focus on positive experiences from our past, we have greater capabilities for enduring change and looking towards the future with a more optimistic outlook.

 

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