By: S. Costa Franco
We've all taken a trip down memory lane once in a while, perhaps triggered by a particular meal, scent or song, that takes us back to a fond memory of our past. The warm and tender emotions directed towards a specific moment in time, typically a joyous one, that took place long ago. This is what is known, as nostalgia. But why does it happen, how does it truly affect our brain, and why is this relevant now?
It is very likely that, at some point, you've found yourself longing to return to a happy memory, swept away by that nostalgic feel. In fact, a 2017 PNAS study found that nostalgia is one of the 27 'main emotions' we humans feel. This can be very positive, bringing us a sense of comfort, and can help us through times of change. It was found that children of about seven can already experience this emotion, recalling striking, happy events from their previous years. But how does this happen? How can something so small, a faint odour or a familiar face, cause the mind to travel back in time so vividly?
Nostalgic episodes can be either unexpected, or sought for in times of distress. After all, we all long for some familiarity when everything seems absolutely unpredictable *cough cough*. These emotions tend to be unleashed by sensory stimuli, and is said to occur most frequently when one is dissatisfied with their current situation. See, the neurons devoted to emotional processing fire signals when we see/feel/hear/smell/taste something that reminds us of our past. These generated sensory signals can interact with neurons that are responsible for retrieving elements from our long-term memory, creating the sense of returning to such memories, and linking our emotions to what we can recall from our past. The interaction created between the emotional and memory-related parts of our brain during a nostalgic episode is unique, making this emotion evermore mysterious and idiosyncratic.
How does it truly affect our brain?
According to a Bustle article written by JR Thorpe and modified in 2021, there are nine primary ways in which nostalgia can impact our brain. These include:
1. Linking the memory system and the reward system within the mind: Nostalgia does not only activate the memory system in the brain, but also triggers the reward system, and these tend to work in tandem. This is why the feeling of nostalgia can feel so pleasant, as your blood flow increases and those 'feel-good hormones' that cause a positive response in the body are activated.
2. It makes you feel warm and optimistic: Remembering a time in which you were triumphant in something can lead to spikes in self-esteem, and the positive sensation that comes from nostalgic episodes could further equip you to positively deal with any obstacles you may encounter in the present.
3. It literally makes you warm: A study that was published in Emotion in 2012 found that people tend to get more nostalgic during colder periods of the year, and feel 'warmer' when this occurs. When the subjects of the study began to feel nostalgic after being placed in a cool environment, they reported the temperature being more elevated than it was, and stated that the location felt comfortable.
4. It can influence your decision-making process: It has been discovered that nostalgia can lead to an individual making bigger purchases, and carelessly spending more money at once. This is why triggering nostalgia is such as commonly used marketing tactic. It can also affect the decisions you make in other areas of your life, for example, suddenly recalling a happy memory can cause one to try and recreate that memory in the present.
5. It can reveal much about your tendency for sadness: Those who have a higher capacity of sadness tend to be much more nostalgic. This is because the emotional centers of the brain are usually more active when one is in a period of gloominess, and one can seek out happier memories to escape whatever burdens them in the present.
6. It acts as a barrier for guilt and other negative emotions: Those who are more nostalgic are found to feel less remorseful or ashamed of what may have occurred in the past, as their brain tends to select happier moments to replay, and the boost in positivity as a result, can be a defence mechanism for the individual, from negative feelings.
7. It can cause a shift in habitual behaviour: Nostalgia modifies the brain's addiction patterns, and can lead to significant changes in habits. Let's take people who smoke, for instance. If a smoker receives a sensory stimulus that triggers a nostalgic memory of their life before smoking, it could cause them to have a more negative outlook on smoking altogether, and raise the tendency of them quitting the habit. The important thing is to not become addicted to nostalgia itself...
8. It can result in a reduction of physical pain: In 2020, studies published in Frontiers in Psychology discovered that thinking of merry memories can increase one's pain tolerance, even if such experienced pain is chronic. The optimism that appears as a result can also help coping with emotional pain.
9. And, of course, it can further connect you to your past: Nostalgia can strengthen our identity, and cause us to think back to our roots, and how our life has changed after the moment we are reminiscing about. It can lead us to identify with a past version of ourselves, a phenomenon known as 'self-continuity', and the reflection provoked from this can cause us to learn much about ourselves and our lifestyle.
Nostalgia's dark side?
Like anything else, nostalgia can also have a dark side, when taken too far. It is found that those who are actively, and constantly, attempting to recall and bring back a happier time in their past can face more challenges when trying to adapt into their present, and may have difficulty in accepting their current situation. It could be a sign of significant unhappiness. The way in which we experience our lives in the present can also be modified if we begin to feel nostalgic much too soon, such as if you start to long for something before it has even ended. For instance, being concerned that an event will end before it has in fact concluded and already begin wistfully hoping it returns can cause any individual to cease to enjoy said event while it is in fact taking place, for fear it may soon terminate. As nostalgia triggers the reward system in the brain, it can become a harmful addiction, causing one to ignore their real-life burdens.
Why is it important today?
It goes without saying that currently, we are experiencing a great amount of change and uncertainty, and it can most definitely be unsettling at times, to say the least. And so, using nostalgia as a coping mechanism can be very helpful and calming. To remember a time when all seemed right with the world can distract us from the turmoil we are now undergoing. One can even learn from their nostalgic experiences, and use their recollections to brighten their current reality. As long as we can discern reality from memories, and can continue to understand that however content we can become from thinking from the past, that doesn't mean we can simply escape the present, we can use nostalgic activity to try and get through this pandemic, in spite of how challenging it seems.