The Science Behind Feeling Nostalgic

By Sarah Jones 10 months ago

1. Activates positive memories

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The feeling of nostalgia does a LOT of things to our brains. It activates positive memories, which also activate reward pathways in the brain, meaning they release chemicals that make us feel good. These chemicals continue to be produced even as we get older, so there’s no age limit on that feeling of nostalgia!

2. Offers us comfort

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When that feeling of nostalgia takes over, it can provide a lot of comfort to us. Old memories of loved ones, fun days out, or even songs can stir those active reward pathways in the brain, and give us that warm fuzzy feeling that so many of us get addicted to. Just be careful to not focus too much on the past, as it can damage our ability to make meaningful connections in the present.

3. Keeps us from going off the rails

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Nostalgia plays a vital part in preventing us from going off the rails (and society too for that matter). It helps us remember the best parts of the past, and forget the bits that aren’t so good. To give an example – it’s pretty important for American society to feel nostalgic for ‘the good old days’, i.e. post-war patriotism.

4. Helps our brains find meaning

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According to mental health experts, our brains love nostalgia because it helps them find meaning and make sense of past events. When you look back fondly at times gone by, you can help your brain find meaning in the present by helping you remember and repeat happy events and attitudes. Just remember that our memories aren’t always accurate, and our brains can tend to idealize things that have happened in the past.

5. It used to be a sign of homesickness

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In the earliest scientific studies into nostalgia, it was seen as a form of homesickness. In fact, this is where the name actually comes from. coined by a Swiss medical student, in his 1688 dissertation, it describes the anxieties of soldiers fighting away from home. The student combined the Greek word for homecoming, nostos, with the word for pain, algos.

6. Helps us connect to others

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Nostalgia can play a big part in helping us connect with others – especially when it comes to things like fashion and music! It helps us strike up friendships and connections with people that remember a specific time, like millennials who experienced the music of Britney, The Spice Girls and Nsync back in the 1990s (us included).

7. Continues bonds

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Some psychologists believe that nostalgia acts as a means to ‘continue bonds’. This idea deals with the effect people and places of the past carry into our present lives. This happens a lot when people set up charitable foundations in their ancestor’s honor, or look back at the values of famous people in history.

8. It helps us self-regulate

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Did you know that nostalgia can actually help us self-regulate? It not only has the potential to calm our minds, but also make sense of how we behave and react. Looking back at past events helps us understand and manage ourselves better, even in times when things get tough. It reminds us who we are, and why we matter.

9. Nostalgia usually focuses on people

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Nostalgia tends to have one key characteristic; people. As humans are social creatures, it’s no great surprise that our nostalgia tends to focus on people who we care about (or we did care about). Family members, close friends and romantic partners tend to be the most common, but sometimes people will get fixated on celebrities too.

10. We find personal meaning

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The memories our nostalgia hooks onto might seem trivial to someone else, but because of the personal context, they still feel deeply meaningful to us. Something as simple as walking to the park with a parent when you were ten years old might now seem wonderful to your 30-year-old self, even if you didn’t see it as a big deal at the time.

11. Our brains can't get excited about memories until a long time has passed

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Nostalgia works in a strange way. Our brains don’t activate a sense of nostalgia over positive memories that happened last week. A lot of time needs to pass before our reward pathways get activated, which gives us that warm fuzzy feeling we know and love. Nobody knows how much time needs to pass before we feel nostalgic, but it tends to differ from person to person.

12. Smells can trigger nostalgia

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It’s not just songs and photographs that can set our brains off – it’s smells too. Smells from our childhoods are particularly powerful, because our first exposure to scents generally occurs during this time. Our brains form super strong connections during this process, as smell is pretty critical to human survival.

13. It can bring up feelings of sadness

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Nostalgia tends to be a mixture of both positive and negative feelings. While we can look back at our treasured memories and feel some nice warm fuzzies, they’re often tinged with sadness or loss, because you know deep down that you’ll never experience that exact same feeling or moment ever again. And this becomes even more pronounced when we think of the memories we have with someone who has passed away.

14. Helps us cope with stress

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While nostalgia can cause a dull ache or longing for the past, it can be fairly useful too. Studies have shown that soldiers fighting war have been able to cope with stressful situations more easily when they draw on the positive memories of their family, friends and loved ones. It’s therefore thought that nostalgia can help us mitigate psychological threats.

15. It encourages us to be social

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Research suggests that nostalgia can actually help us engage in ‘prosocial’ behavior. Psychologists believe that nostalgia can make us realize the importance of relationships. In turn, this motivates us to connect with friends and pursue new romantic relationships, even if we’ve been hurt badly in the past.

16. Boosted optimism

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In psychology circles, nostalgia is strongly associated with feelings of optimism. And considering the chemical makeup of our brains is encouraging us to feel good, that’s not much of a surprise! While nostalgia is concerned with the past, it can still help us move forwards in our lives and take ownership of what we want.

17. It gives us motivation

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Nostalgia has been proven to boost our levels of motivation. During the pandemic, we saw a LOT of nostalgia play out – listening to old music, watching old movies, and longing for the ‘before’ times. Those feelings were triggered by loneliness and a stressful situation, but they were also motivating. They helped us believe that if we could make it through, the reward of seeing our loved ones again would be worth it.

18. It was once considered a mental disorder

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Back in the 17th century (when the term nostalgia was first coined) many scientists believed that nostalgia was not only a form of homesickness, but also a mental disorder. The Swiss physician Johannes Hofer considered nostalgia to be a cerebral disease, and was quick to diagnose his patients with it.

19. It isn't an emotional state

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Nostalgia can definitely trigger emotions, but it’s not actually an emotional state itself. According to psychology experts, it is “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past”. Rather than seeing the past for what it truly was, we remember it as a huge mix of multiple memories, filtering negative ones out to integrate the positive ones.

20. Boosts our self esteem

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Did you know that nostalgia is commonly associated with a boost in self-esteem? Because those active pathways in our brains help us feel so good, they can actually improve our confidence too. We can see ourselves in a better light, and we’re more likely to step out of our comfort zone and take a chance on something new.

21. It differs from recollection

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Recollection is defined as “a conscious and intentional effort” when trying to remember our past memories, which is different from nostalgia. Nostalgia is usually triggered by our senses, which opens the door to a flood of hazy feelings that take our attention away from the present and into the past.

22. You're more likely to get nostalgic if you have anxiety

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Nostalgia generally helps us cope with negativity; if we’re feeling lonely or in a bad state of mind, our brains can recall some of our special moments to help us deal with things. This means that people who experience anxiety tend to become nostalgic, as it helps calm the mind and soothe inner worries.

23. Music is a common trigger

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According to Freud, music is one of the biggest triggers of nostalgia – and it’s something most of us will probably agree with! Hearing a song from your youth will instantly transport you back in time to a different place – and there’s a good reason for this. It’s been found that songs that were on the radio during our childhood make a person feel more attached to them, so they’re not more recognized, but also help trigger memories of that time.

24. The most common nostalgia smell is baked bread

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According to a BBC report, the smell of baked bread is one of the most common nostalgia triggers around. It’s associated with a sense of comfort and home, so it’s not too surprising! Other common nostalgic smells include food and cooking smells like pasta, bacon, meatballs, as well as Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners.

25. As our lives become more settled, we can become less nostalgic

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Experts believe that nostalgia is most common in young adults, who tend to experience a lot of big life changes in a short space of time. Going to college or moving away from home can be tough, so nostalgia plays a big part in offering mental comfort. However, as we get older, its believed that we become less nostalgic, as we become much more settled in our lives.

26. Some used to believe nostalgia was demonic possession

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While 17th century scientists believed that nostalgia was a mental disorder, others went even further with this. At the time when nostalgia was considered a new phenomenon, some believed that it was actually a sign of demonic possession. The church naturally got involved to ‘cleanse’ people of these demons.

27. Nostalgia can show up on brain scans

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When the reward pathways in our brain get activated, they naturally light up the reward system, as well as our memory. According to a 2016 study that monitored the brain through MRI scans, these parts of the brain demonstrate activity when we feel a sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia was also found to activate the prefrontal cortex, as well as our limbic systems.

28. Nostalgia can be addictive

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Nostalgia can offer us a mental comfort blanket when things get tough. But this feeling can get addictive. If people are struggling to deal with the challenges of the present, they can often lose themselves in an idealized version of the past, which means they can deliberately avoid finding solutions to their problems.

29. It takes away our responsibilities

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One reason why people love nostalgia is that it transports us back to our childhood. And for most of us, childhood meant zero responsibility! As we take on more responsibilities as we grow up, we can find ourselves longing for a simpler time – of pure joy and limited worries. It’s easy to see why people can become addicted to this feeling of nostalgia…

30. It can counteract depression

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Nostalgia has been scientifically proven to be a powerful tool against depression. Numerous studies have shown that the act of reminiscing can actually counteract loneliness, as it promotes our personal interactions with people we love. It’s also been found the help the longevity of marriages too.

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