Summer days filled with pool parties and lemonade stands. Camping trips with s’mores and hiking. Basement pingpong sessions that lasted hours on end. Those were the good ol’ days, right? It’s a universal experience to let out a nostalgic sigh and remember beautiful moments from days gone by. And it’s no wonder the past is so appealing sometimes — there’s less responsibility and no unknowns lurking around the corner. You’ve already lived it, so it’s a safe and comfortable place to revisit.
But it turns out, there’s a lot more going on with nostalgia than simply reminiscing on happy memories.
So… what is nostalgia exactly?
When we think of nostalgia, we immediately jump to the idea of fondly looking back on memories. But it turns out, nostalgia doesn’t actually relate to specific memories at all. Instead, it’s more of an emotional state called a “screen memory.” Neurologist Alan R. Hirsch describes a screen memory as “not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”
Why does it make us feel so good?
There are two big boxes that need to be checked to have a true nostalgic experience: The memory has to be way in the past and it has to have emotional significance. During a 2016 study of nostalgia, researchers studied MRI scans and discovered that when we play out these idealized memory snapshots, the brain rewards us with a positive feedback loop of emotions and sensations.
Idealized past emotions become displaced onto inanimate objects, sounds, smells and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions. Through daily behavior, the nostalgic urges may also be partially gratified — food choices for example (hence the passing down from generation to generation of family recipes) — with an actual primitive incorporation into the self of the nostalgic object.
What triggers it?
Although any of our senses are capable of inducing nostalgia, it seems like hearing music or smelling something familiar are the two most powerful triggers. Neurobiologist Howard Eichenbaum shed some light on the power of smell in an interview with NBC: “Olfactory [the sense of smell] has a strong input into the amygdala, which processes emotions. The kind of memories that it evokes are good and they are more powerful.”
So when smells are run through the amygdala part of our brain (which handles intense emotions), it helps us connect memories of scents to powerful, positive emotions. That explains why old family recipes are passed down from generation to generation — it’s a way to hold onto the delightfully smelly memories of the past.
As far as music, we make powerful connections with the tunes from our youth because our brain is rapidly developing from age 12 to 22. Anything we hear during that time is associated with a massive amount of raging hormones and emotions — so even the worst pop song can become a loveable throwback. Read more about that and other ways music makes us happy here.
What good does it do to live in the past?
We can all agree that it’s not healthy to dwell on what once was — everyone should focus on moving forward instead of looking back at the past. But Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England, argues that nostalgia can actually help people going through hard times: “Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions. The young adults are just moving away from home and/or starting their first jobs, so they fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.”
Research has also shown that nostalgia can help us realize or maintain our self-worth and improve our outlook on the future. Dr. Tim Wildschut at the University of Southampton claims: “Nostalgia, by promoting optimism, could help individuals cope with psychological adversity." This means that a healthy love for the past could inspire hope for a brighter future.
So maybe it’s not so bad to throw on a classic album from high school or bake up grandma’s casserole for the 200th time. What are some of your nostalgic indulgences? How do they make you feel and what do they make you think about? Let us know in the comments — we’d love to hear!
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