Feeling nostalgic? Your brain is hardwired to crave it

From Barbie to Grimace, it might seem like pop culture is just lazily recycling old ideas. But experts say yearning for the “good old days” is more than just a fuzzy feeling.

A Blur concert sells out in two minutes, while The Cure’s tour breaks attendance records. McDonald’s commercials star Grimace. Mission Impossible thrills at the box office. What year is it? you ask. No, not 2000. It’s 2023. Have we run out of new ideas? Or do we just prefer rehashing and revisiting things we already know and love? 

Nostalgia, or the experience of lovingly recalling and longing for your past, is seemingly saturating our culture right now, with movie and TV screens especially bloated. From Barbie, Indiana Jones, and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. to And Just Like That, Top Gun, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, media makers have been betting big on nostalgic fare. And so far, it’s proven catnip to the masses. Barbie had the highest-grossing debut weekend of any film so far this year.  

But why is it so easy to fall into the nostalgia trap? 

On its surface, it seems simple: conjuring fond fuzzy feelings from our past just makes us feel good. But there’s a lot more going on.

“Consuming nostalgic media of all types gives us a way of thinking about who we are, and helps us make sense of our purpose in life,” said Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at LeMoyne College and longtime nostalgia researcher. 

Batcho has been studying nostalgia since the 1990s, even developing a Nostalgia Inventory that assesses how prone you are to nostalgia. She says she’s seen an explosion of research into nostalgia in recent years as scientists increasingly want to piece together what makes nostalgia tick, or rather, how nostalgia makes us tick. 

In 2014, an entire textbook on media and nostalgia was published. Last February, a full issue of the science journal Current Opinion in Psychology was dedicated to nostalgia. 

Ziyan Yang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Psychology, explained that while experiencing nostalgia, people feel a sense of warmness, fondness, and belonging, and even experience a sort of mental time travel, all of which can drive people to seek out nostalgia. Yang asserts that movies and music easily trigger nostalgia and that nostalgic experiences can be particularly comforting in trying times, be they personal or global. Batcho agrees.

“Familiar media from our past brings us emotional comfort, but it also meets a cognitive need: it encourages the belief that things will get better because they’ve been good before,” said Batcho.

Nostalgia in troubled times

Many researchers believe the COVID-19 pandemic is partially driving the recent surge in nostalgia-seeking behavior. Since nostalgia can help us feel better, and media provides a potent source of nostalgia, consumption of nostalgia-inducing media increases in times of crisis, according to a paper published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media. 

But nostalgia doesn’t just scratch our itch to feel cozy and comforted, it also helps us to process our current situation.

“Nostalgia is one way of coping with things like social isolation or disconnectedness, loneliness,” Batcho said. “Times of adversity can trigger nostalgia because remembering who we were helps with our identity continuity.” 

Nostalgia serves several important psychological purposes, Batcho asserts. 

One is the need to feel that we are in control. Even if our circumstances are largely out of our control, nostalgia can help us feel like we at least have some control over our own personal development. 

Another need nostalgia helps us meet is social connection. This may sound counterintuitive since nostalgia typically involves private reflection on our personal history, but nostalgic memories remind us of our relationships with other people. Batcho says nostalgic recollections can encourage us to seek out social and emotional support because they frequently feature important people from our past.

Much of nostalgia recalls periods from childhood. Batcho says a big reason for this is that “in childhood, we were loved simply for who we were.” 

Nostalgia on the brain

What is all this nostalgia doing to our brains? 

A lot, it turns out. And luckily, most of it is positive. Research has found that nostalgia can increase our sense of well-being, boost inspiration and creativity, make us feel more youthful, alert, optimistic, and energetic, and even encourage us to take risks and pursue our goals

Yang and her research colleagues have recently found that nostalgia can reduce our perception of pain and enhance our ability to detect threats. They found that compared to control subjects, subjects thinking about something nostalgic had more brain activity when reading threatening words. 

As for pain relief, two studies were conducted to examine the analgesic effect of nostalgia on different levels of pain. In the first, a person looked at nostalgic pictures and experienced relief from low-level thermal pain. But when researchers asked individuals to reflect on an event from their past, they experienced relief from both high and low thermal pain. 

Yang has also found that the brain areas active during nostalgic experiences are those associated with self-reflection, autobiographical memory, emotional regulation, and reward processing. That means nostalgia is regulating our brain activity in these areas, acting as a buffer against various psychological and physical threats. In other words, we’re doing a lot more than just recalling a nice memory. 

Rose-tinted glasses

Nostalgia is typically considered a contradictory emotional experience. Even with happy memories, nostalgia can be both sweet and sour. While you feel comfort and warmth about the memory itself, you may also feel sadness because that experience is gone.

“The memories in nostalgia are not always good. Sometimes they are bittersweet or even sad,” Yang explained. “But even the bad memories that come to mind seem to be more positive because we see them through a rose-tinted filter.” 

We aren’t just longing for our past, we are remembering a romanticized version of our past. 

According to Batcho, there’s a reason our memories become fonder over time, why the negative bits tend to fade away faster. Take parenthood, for example. 

“Remembering things as better than they were serves an evolutionary purpose. If people were to remember things faithfully to the original, most women would never want to have more than one child,” Batcho said laughing. “It’s a function of species survival that we can gloss over the bad portions of the past.”  

So, is there such a thing as too much nostalgia? Possibly. 

As a temporary escape, nostalgia provides a much-needed respite that can sustain us during difficult times. It can become negative if you get stuck ruminating on the past. 

But in general, nostalgia is a healthy, even vital component of the human experience. At its core, nostalgia helps guide us back to our authentic selves, reminding us of who we were always meant to be. 

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