Why do we remember some stories and not others? What happens in our brains when our attention is piqued?
You’re not alone. This last year has seen many of us seeking comfort and cheer in memories of the past. Many of us are directing our attentions to thoughts of easier, happier times. Research tells us that during lockdown last spring, there was a rise in ‘nostalgic consumption’ – we began to repeat activities that gave us a sense of comfort, everything from binge-watching old TV series, to traditional crafts, such as knitting.
We bought foods that reminded us of childhood and Spotify reported a 54% increase in nostalgia-themed playlists. It’s clear that nostalgia played a big part in helping us to cope with our sudden, frightening new circumstances, but our love of all things past is showing no sign of abating.
El mal de corazón
Before it had a proper name, that familiar feeling of longing was a problem. Back in the 1600s, “el mal de corazón”(“the bad heart”), as it was known, was a soldier’s disease and considered a medical condition serious enough to result in discharge from service. In his dissertation “Curiosa-medica de Nostalgia”, Swiss Physician Johannes Hofer gave it a formal name, drawn from the Greek nostos, (to return home) and algos (pain). He categorised it as a neurological disease, typified by persistent thoughts of home, weeping, anxiety and insomnia. Those who were diagnosed with ‘Nostalgia’ at the time considered it a great indignity and weakness.
The understanding of nostalgia shifted over the years and in the early 19th century it was thought to be more akin to depression and treated as such. It was only in the 20th century that we began to think of nostalgia in the context of warmth, wistfulness and sentimentality. Indeed, we now deliberately induce feelings of nostalgia because it makes us feel good. But besides the fuzzy wuzzies, what does nostalgia actually do?
Nostalgia: more than just a memory
It all begins with our ‘autobiographical memory’, which are memories of our personal history, like a childhood home or friend’s birthday party. These are collectively processed in two interconnected areas of the brain – the hippocampus and two almond-shaped amygdalae – which are part of our limbic system. This is the area that takes care of emotions, pleasure and behaviour. However, when a memory has a deep emotional quality, it is the amygdalae that step in to deal with it.
Emotion is key here because the experience of nostalgia is not memory, it’s an emotional state. And, as we know, it can be brought about by ‘remembering’ – or, to put it more functionally, retrieving an autobiographical memory that has been ‘triggered’ by a sensory input. This may well be taste, smell or sound, buy can also come from something less easy to label, like a conversation or being in a familiar place. So that feeling of nostalgia from eating apple pie? When your amygdalae processed a previous pie, it took a strong emotional response with it. Of course, we must acknowledge that not all emotions are positive, so the amygdala can equally process fear as happiness. This, together with the hippocampus’ ability to supress memories in times of high stress, means that they also play a part in trauma response, such as PTSD.
The experience of nostalgia is not memory, it’s an emotional state
Warm memories of the past for a brighter future
On the whole, we humans are pretty effective creatures and certainly most of our functions have a purpose. Nostalgia is no exception. Dr Tim Wildschut, who co-authored a 2013 study titled ‘Back to the future: Nostalgia increases optimism’ found that “Memories of the past can help to maintain current feelings of self-worth and can contribute to a brighter outlook on the future… nostalgia, by promoting optimism, could help individuals cope with psychological adversity." Dr Wildschut and colleagues have subsequently authored further papers that explore more psychological benefits of nostalgia, such as an increased sense of belonging and a greater sense of meaning in life. There is also some evidence to suggest that a direct hit of nostalgia can encourage us to make better choices. Researchers at Michigan State University discovered that when nostalgia was used as a communications tactic in reframing government anti-smoking messages, attitudes actually changed for the better.
Nostalgia in the now
What’s really interesting about our current need for nostalgia is how many people are using it to make aesthetic and lifestyle choices today. Modern ‘Zine culture, for example, lends itself brilliantly to the DIY look and feel that regained popularity in the 90s (albeit with a new, grungy twist) and Zinesters over the world connect in a shared love of a very classic format. Instagram accounts devoted to decades past have hundreds of thousands of followers for their revisits of classic photos and celebrity culture, providing as much fashion inspo as they did over twenty years ago. And the backpacks of cool kids contain pocket printers or instant cameras for creating shareable stickers of retro-filtered and stylishly imperfect selfies. It seems that our love of nostalgia is going nowhere, but it isn’t what it used to be.