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Understanding Nostalgia

by Ryan Wang

Remember the first day of elementary school? How about the first time you rode a bike? Your first kiss (if applicable)? Do you want to return to those carefree days when the biggest concern was passing your math test later that day? What feelings do those memories conjure? The answer lies in nostalgia. Merrian-Webster defines nostalgia as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” In simpler words, it is a wish to return to the past; back to the good old days when life was simpler. Nostalgia is a particularly special emotion simply due to the number of areas in the brain it stimulates. It is the only feeling in the brain that directly connects emotions to memories. A study performed in 2007 by The National Trust showed that nostalgia stimulated the amygdala, the part of the brain which controls emotions connected to memories (also controls part of the brain’s reward system!), and the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes positive feelings. Knowing this, it is easy to see why nostalgia is so powerful.  

The term nostalgia was first coined in 1688 by Swiss doctor Johannes Hoffer, who described it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” after diagnosing hundreds of Swiss soldiers with it. In simpler terms, it was defined to be an extreme case of homesickness that led to depression. In fact, many diagnosed with this “disorder” in the 17th century were also diagnosed with depression. That’s right, back in the 17th century, nostalgia was considered a dangerous, even fatal mental disorder! It was not until the 21st century that researchers delved further into nostalgia and deemed it a harmless emotion most humans experience.

Let’s return to nostalgia itself. A key question that often comes up is why? Why do we experience nostalgia, and what determines how strong the feeling is? We experience nostalgia when we experience memories, but we feel especially strongly when we recall distorted memories. That’s why human memory is so elusive, when we recall experiences, we are remembering what our brain wants us to remember, not what truly happened. In the same sense, when we experience nostalgia, our brain is passively filtering the bad parts of the memory away and only keeps the most pleasant parts of the experience. The hour after that moment of pleasure might have been miserable, but our mind chooses not to remember it, leading us to pine for that moment in time. This can be expressed through Alan Hirsch’s definition of nostalgia in his report titled, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding.” According to Hirsch, “nostalgia is 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.” And as it turns out, nostalgia has nothing to do with specific memories but rather states of time. Your first day in elementary school symbolizes the general time frame of ages 6-11. Your brain associates that time frame with a general carefree attitude, which was how it reached the association. Your brain also most likely decided to filter out the bad moments of that time frame (broken friendships? Anyone?), creating a longing feeling for that particular time frame. 

So, that’s great and all, but how is nostalgia triggered? After all, few of us would purposefully go (metaphorically) back in time to experience our innocent childhood, we are too busy for that. So, what our brain will do is place that emotional feeling we tie to certain time frames into objects. A certain house might trigger a memory of a friend who moved away, an aroma might trigger a memory of a grandma who used to cook a delicacy when you were younger. And in its essence, that is how the brain works. Billions of neurons connected fire in quick succession, triggering a memory, which then, in turn, triggers the firing of more neurons. Our brain works through association and connection. Through an emotion like nostalgia, we can grasp the fundamentals of something much bigger: our brain. 

Nostalgia may be harmless medically, but it is a powerful emotion that can be harnessed and taken advantage of by many different types of brands. Nostalgia is a more complex emotion compared to primal emotions such as fear and love, but that does not mean it is any less effective. According to Christina Balanzo,  nostalgia has the power to “improve our mood, increase social connectedness, enhance positive self-regard, and provide existential meaning.” It acts as the social glue we so desperately need, especially during the pandemic.


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1 comment

Anonymous Nyan Cat April 8, 2022 - 4:30 pm

Great article!
What if your biggest concern is still passing your math test :clown:
or what if your biggest concern is that your biggest concern is still passing your math test :clownspeak:


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