We all felt the warm feeling while driving by haunts of your old high school or hearing a song the you once danced to. But why is this sort of bittersweet reminiscence so universal?
Modern neuroscientists and psychologists know you ‘re good at a healthy dose of nostalgia, at least if you’re remembering happy days. But in 1688, when Johannes Hofer coined the term in his scientific essay, there was no sweetness to sever the bitter sensation. A combination of the Greek words nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain, it was a particular kind of homesickness associated with soldiers fighting far-off wars — and doctors feared it might kill.
Physicians like Hofer in the seventeenth century worried that these thoughts drained the “vital energies” of a patient, wasting their vitality and endangering health, says Susan J. Matt, a history professor at Weber State University. Doctors questioned whether nostalgia was a disease in its own right or something that intensified other prevalent illnesses among soldiers, such as dysentery, in the 19th Century. They thought it might cause irregular heartbeat, fever, and, in rare cases , death, anyway.
Since then our nostalgic opinion has evolved but the phenomenon still eludes understanding. This makes it impossible to shoehorn into current theory of psychology, which usually categorizes feelings as either positive or negative. And triggers — the cars, chords, or smells that blast you into the past — are extremely personal. It’s difficult to design a systematic analysis when one person’s garbage is another’s sentimental treasure.
Yet we know that nostalgia has a profound impact on us: studies of mri show us that these memories have their own neural signature. Barrett reported in 2016 that meaningful musical signs changed substantia nigra activity, a reward processing center that makes dopamine the happy hormone.
The same year, Japanese neuroscientists published their own research, which suggests that the brain’s recall and reward systems co-produce the emotion. They find that nostalgic images tax the memory-managing hippocampus more than other sights, as people deep down in the past mine autobiographic information. This mental activity pays off: When the hippocampus is firing, so does the ventral striatum, another dopaminergic reward core of the brain.
The hunt for the past may be a defensive mechanism, says Tim Wildschut, a social and personality psychology professor at the University of Southampton , England. He and his colleagues have produced a growing body of evidence since 2001 that people who are more inclined to nostalgia are generally more likely to socialize, feel empathy and find meaningful life.
But their research also indicates a more basic explanation for the feeling: The same neurology that makes us long for people and places that we have left behind may have developed to remind our ancient ancestors of fun physical stimuli during times of discomfort and pain.
Wildschut’s team showed in a 2012 study in the journal Emotion that lower temperatures make us more nostalgic, and that nostalgia makes us feel toasty even when we’re objectively colder — a bit of magical thinking that could help people persevere in situations that might otherwise feel hopeless. If you can trick you into feeling a little less freezing by remembering the warmth of the cave you last called home, you could just keep moving long enough to find shelter before your body starts shutting down.
In the modern era of sweaters and central heating, research suggests that the occasional look backward can also give us a life-affirming boost in more-subtle ways: by increasing selfesteem and protecting against depression. Clay Routledge, a social psychologist at North Dakota State University, conducted some of the earliest experimental studies on reminiscing as a mechanism for emotional self-regulation. “We’re in this campaign for some sort of meaning in life,” Routledge says. When you feel anxious or inconsequential, memories can be a source of comfort. “These cherished experiences we’ve accumulated across time make our lives seem meaningful,” he says. Feeling nostalgic helps us access them.
In people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, the apparent power of sentimentality to jump-start one ‘s memory also seems to improve recall ability. The Unforgettables, a chorus for people with dementia in New York City, was founded in 2011 by Mary Mittelman, a researcher at the psychiatry department of New York University Langone Health. As the band plays popular tunes — think of traditional songs like “Ol’ Man River”—participants start singing along, particularly those who struggle with daily expression. Some practitioners are attempting to integrate retro audio into structured dementia treatment, with customized playlists and tailored concerts for patients and their families put on by music therapists.
New flavors of this sort of “reminiscence therapy” are emerging around the world. In 2018, London-based startup Virtue Health launched the virtual reality app LookBack, which allows headset-wearing users to visit memorable locations around the world, or just take a walk on a familiar beach.
That same year, the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers opened its first Town Square, an adult daycare facility designed to look like a small town in 1950s America. Though LookBack and Town Square have yet to publish peer-reviewed data on the success of their programs, clients say the projects have helped seniors access dusty memories and reconnect with loved ones.
To better describe this nuanced and bittersweet human emotion, scientists need a lot more knowledge. But while centuries of doctors saw nostalgia as a deadly disease, we now know how wrong they were: our search for a lost time can help us to get through today.
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