Nostalgia, the feeling of longing and wistfulness for times gone by, is a very common sensation; a study in 2017 found that
nostalgia is one of the 27 "main" emotions that humans feel. It's been recorded as a unique emotion for at least 300 years, and these days you'll often find it plucking your heartstrings in ad campaigns. Nostalgia is why you click on those "which '90s film heroine are you" quizzes, and enjoy smells that remind you of your grandma's house at Christmas; it connects you pleasurably to elements of the past. And it turns out that feeling nostalgia can actually change your brain in a few interesting, complicated ways.
The evolutionary purpose of nostalgia is pretty complex. Researchers told
The New York Times in 2013 that powerful nostalgic memories can help us cope with transition in our lives, give us comfort, and help our sense of identity. They noted it that nostalgia is found in children as young as seven years old, who can look "back" on big happy events in their previous years. In the brain, modern scientists have found, that tendency for emotional connection to the past in humans leads to all kinds of intriguing neurological patterns. Feeling a hankering for the heady days of 2002? Here's what that does to your brain.
It Combines Your Memory And Your Reward System
When we encounter a thing that has a "meaningful" memory, like a place where we had a happy experience, certain neurons fire in the brain that are
devoted to emotional processing, according to a study in 2017. That tie between memory and emotion is unique to nostalgia.
In 2016, researchers conducted
MRI scans of brains feeling nostalgia, and found out that nostalgic memories depend on two things: "chronological remoteness" (being far in the past) and "emotional and personal significance." When nostalgia was triggered, the brains of the people being scanned showed activity in the memory areas and in the parts that give us "rewards," or positive feelings and sensations. The more those two systems worked in tandem, the more nostalgia people felt.
It Makes You More Optimistic
A study in 2013 found that nostalgia doesn't just have to do with the past; it can increase our
resilience and our positivity about the future and cause spikes in self-esteem. This, in turn, may explain why we seek it out. It's got such good emotional resonance for us that we're not just listening to hits from our high school days, we're also refueling our sense of positivity.
It Makes You Feel Warmer
If you feel more nostalgia in the colder months — candy apples! Halloween! Christmas trees! — it may not just be because of holidays gone by. A study in 2012 found that people
feel more nostalgia in colder months, and also experience more "warmth" when they do. When the subjects of the study had nostalgic feelings in cold rooms, they rated their surroundings as warmer and more comfortable; meaning, nostalgia may actually help us feel more physically comfortable in inhospitable and cold surroundings. Researchers are not entirely sure how this works in the brain, but it's likely a product of the brain's reward system and how it interprets stimuli.
It Can Change Your Decision-Making
If you come across a lot of nostalgia in advertising and political campaigning, there's a reason for that. Harkening back to the "good old days" is well-known to be an effective strategy for influencing decision-making, and a study in 2014 confirmed that when you feel nostalgia,
you make bigger purchasing decisions, spending more money in one go. Entering a store that reminds you of your favorite childhood Christmases appears to influence your rational ability to be conservative with spending. Result? Lots of shopping.
It's Related To Your Capacity For Sadness
Nostalgia isn't always positive, though it's often represented that way. And the
Neurology Times reported in 2016 that you're more likely to experience nostalgia if you also get high marks on a particular scale designed to measure your capacity for sadness. The Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales track peoples' tendency for play, curiosity, caring, fear, anger, and sadness, and those who show a great tendency for sadness are more likely to experience strong nostalgia more regularly, likely because the emotional centers of the brain are very active.
It Blocks Negative Emotion
Scientists in 2018 were fascinated by the effects of Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan, and set out to look at America's nostalgia for its past, despite its problematic history. They found that in the United States,
nostalgia helps people avoid feeling guilt or shame about the problems in the nation's history. And it works on the individual level, too; they did further studies on several hundred individuals, and found that the more nostalgic people were, the less likely they were to express guilt about past crimes or problems. "Nostalgia serves as a kind of defence [ sic] against bad feelings and as a resource to raise the coherence and moral standing of the group," they said in a press release. And that can have a dark side.
It Can Shift Your Habits
Nostalgia can be a deeply powerful motivational force and a way of reshaping the world around you. And a study in 2017 found that it can actually
change the brain's addiction patterns — by helping people quit smoking. Being exposed to PSAs that evoked nostalgia about life before cigarettes, rather than ones that emphasized the dangers of the habit, made people in the study more motivated to quit and more negative about smoking in general. Emotions about our past are powerful things, and their tie into our internal "reward" system means they can be used to push us in the right direction.
The science of nostalgia reveals that it's a very complex emotion that unites many different parts of the brain. Behind your longing for hot summer nights as a teen is a feeling that may help you survive, stay positive, keep warm and avoid bad feelings. But it's important to recognize how powerful nostalgia is — and when it's selling you a false image of how things used to be.