Nostalgia: The Seductive Liar

Updated: Apr 19, 2018

What does nostalgia have to do with NECCO wafers?

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that can be conjured by anything that reminds you of days gone by… a song, a smell, or even an ordinary drive down a tree-lined road. Most of us can slip into nostalgia intentionally. But, some nostalgic episodes are unexpected or hard to explain. The smell of freshly cut grass will take me right back to playing outside at my grandparent’s house. Or seeing the movie The Breakfast Club makes me instantly remember a high school crush. I don’t know why… I remember little about this boy mostly because I don’t think he ever even spoke to me. Why that particular movie brings him back to mind is a mystery to me.

The definition of nostalgia has changed over time. The etymology of the word is based on two word parts meaning "homecoming" and "pain." The Greek word nostos means “to return” and algos means “suffering.” Nostalgia was originally described as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” by Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688. For centuries, nostalgia was considered a debilitating and potentially fatal medical condition expressing extreme homesickness.

Today, we think of nostalgia as a wistful yearning for the past. But recent neuroscience tells us that nostalgia does more than take us on a pleasant trip down memory lane.

Research shows that nostalgia promotes a host of positive mental states and behaviors such as improved mood, increased social connectedness, and a more optimistic outlook on life. It counteracts feelings of loneliness and anxiety and can even warm us physically when in a cold room.

Studies also show that after experiencing a nostalgic episode people are more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. One reason for this is that nostalgic stories often start with some kind of problem or hurdle to overcome. We remember them because the outcome is positive usually due to the kindness of another person. This inspires a sense of gratitude and feelings of human connectedness.

Nostalgic experiences generate all of these positive mental states because they stimulate metabolic activity and blood flow in several regions of the brain, particularly the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for the processing and storage of memories and emotions. It is also the pleasure and reward center of the brain. For this reason, neuroscientists maintain that it is possible to become addicted to the pleasure of nostalgia, just as an overstimulation of the reward center can feed an addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, etc.

That’s the seductive part.

Here’s the liar part.

Most of our nostalgic experiences are idealized versions of the way we want it to be, not necessarily reality. Psychoanalysts call this a screen memory - not a true recreation of the past, but a patchwork of positive and powerful emotions stitched together with all of the negative emotions filtered out.

Since it is a natural bias is to remember the good without any of the pain or hurt that may have also been part of the event, some scientists regard nostalgia as an emotional state rather than a recall of memories. In a sense, nostalgia tricks the brain into creating so that we can “relive" memories that never happened.

So, the next time you are feeling nostalgic, take that trip back in time with the satisfaction that you’re likely to reap positive mental benefits from the experience. And, before you start lamenting about how life was so much simpler, easier, better, or happier back then, keep in mind that what you remember is likely to be far better than what actually happened.

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