Life in Sepia: The Science of Nostalgia

Originally published on Sept. 6th, 2014

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As I was recently preparing to return to school for my last year of university, I was digging through my possessions to determine what would come with me and what would have to be thrown out. I sat in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by that familiar scent of warm, dusty carpet, rifling through old birthday cards and various special trinkets. With the late-summer light streaming in through the curtains, I felt that peculiar mixture of sadness, happiness, and wistful mourning for days I would never get back. I started to wonder, as I do whenever I’m confronted by something that I do not fully understand, what exactly I was feeling. Is there a particular cocktail of neurotransmitters that can simultaneously make you feel like sobbing and full of hope for the future? Is it simply a combination of simultaneous but discrete emotions? As it turns out, some fellow curious minds out there have conducted pretty extensive research into the true nature of what we call ‘nostalgia’: where it comes from, how it works, and why it can both hurt and act as a balm.

Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar…

~William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

The word itself is a mash-up of ‘nostos’, meaning ‘homecoming’ or ‘return’, and ‘algos’, meaning ‘pain’. The term, coined by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer in 1688, was originally used to diagnose the anxiety and other deleterious symptoms presented by soldiers fighting on fronts far from home. In the decades that followed, nostalgia was considered synonymous with homesickness, and was eventually classified as a psychiatric disorder. By the 20th century, experts thought of nostalgia as a subconscious need to return to an earlier stage in life and considered it a ‘repressive compulsive disorder‘ that contributed to issues such as insomnia and disordered eating.

Recent studies, however, have yielded quite a different conclusion. Most scientists now say that nostalgia is actually good for your brain. It turns out that you can actually induce nostalgia in a lab,(more on that later) and the results are much more positive than the medicine of previous centuries would have you believe. Social psychologists have found strong support for the idea that nostalgia allows for continuity between present and past selves. Participants who were given an article to read that induced existential angst tended to report more nostalgic thoughts than participants who had been given a control article. This lends support to the idea that people who feel emotionally threatened may use a glance backward into the hazy glow of their idyllic past to give them a sense of stability within their own life, as well as a connection to concrete events and people.

In another scenario, participants who were induced into nostalgic states reported higher feelings of self-worth than their comparative control group. The researchers say this is most likely because the state of nostalgia gives a fond, pleasant quality to the events of the past, especially as they pertain to the individual and their actions. In other words, the way your brain remembers your life (and your role in it) makes it look better than it may have actually been. In even better news, nostalgia can increase motivation, energy, and optimism. Alright, I’m sold.

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But where does it come from? Studies show that nostalgia can be brought on by a specific trigger, like the smell of your mother’s perfume or the sound of the rain on a rooftop. Additionally, some sensory triggers are stronger than others: odor is thought to be the most directly connected to emotion since the olfactory lobe (the area of your brain that processes scent) is located in the limbic area, which is your brain’s emotional processing center. But nostalgia is more likely to be brought on by a nebulous feeling, usually negative, such as worry or isolation. In fact, those with anxiety may use nostalgia more than others, because nostalgia can relieve worries and fears.

Nostalgia is also linked to our brain chemistry–specifically, what our brain chemistry was like during the time about which we are being nostalgic. For example, have you ever noticed what kind of music makes you feel that telltale fuzziness inside? Is it Fleetwood Mac? Britney Spears? It turns out we respond most strongly to the music we heard and loved during our adolescence. This is in part because those musical preferences can be imprinted into the emotional center of our brain by all the chemicals and hormones that run highest during this time. The music we listen to as young people also plays a major role in helping us create our identity, and we tend to associate these songs and bands most closely with our core selves. In fact, apparently we reminisce more about our 20’s in general than any other time in our lives–psychologists call this the reminisce bump.

Overall, researchers have found that although nostalgia may bring wistful feelings or a longing for a time in the past, the net result is actually…happiness. Nostalgia centers us more clearly within the trajectory of our lives, reassures us of our identity and our connection to other people, and makes us feel better about ourselves. So it’s natural that nostalgia is what we turn to when we feel threatened, unsure, or isolated, like heading back for the last year of college. Because after that’s over? Who knows what comes next.

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