A Look Back At Nostalgia

History of Nostalgia

Nostalgia, a feeling known to most as a longing for the past, is no new concept. References to the word nostalgia have been seen by the likes of Shakespeare and Hippocrates.

The word itself was coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in the 17th century. He used it to refer to the symptoms Swiss mercenaries displayed while fighting away from home. These symptoms were anxiety, insomnia, irregular heartbeat and “persistent thinking of home” amongst others. Hofer described nostalgia as “a cerebral disease” caused by vibrations in the fibres in the middle of our brain that had traces of “the Fatherland”, or home. J. J. Scheuchzer, another physician, proposed that nostalgia was due to differences in atmospheric pressure increasing blood pressure and sending more blood to the brain “thereby producing the observed affliction of sentiment”. Many others proposed the idea that this nostalgic affliction kept happening to the Swiss due to the clanging of cowbells in the Alps inflicting damage on the brain and ears. There were many different theories regarding what this phenomenon was. What’s consistent amongst them is that nostalgia was seen as a neurological affliction.

This definition shifted in the early 19th century to a form of melancholia or depression. This is due to nostalgia’s similarities to homesickness (which does have some links to depression and anxiety in extreme cases). It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that nostalgia and homesickness became separate concepts, and it continued to evolve into the nostalgia we know today.

The Cambridge dictionary defines nostalgia as “a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past”, and Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition”. Put broadly, nostalgia is a powerful emotion, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, that is triggered by things that happen in the present that remind us of the past. In the rest of this article, I am going to explore how nostalgia works and how we can use it.

What’s happening when you feel nostalgic?

When you’re feeling nostalgic, blood flow is increased and several regions in the brain and your reward centres are stimulated. The major region affected is the limbic system of the brain, which contains the hippocampus, hypothalamus, the amygdala and other nearby regions of the brain. The functions of the limbic system are related to nostalgia; it handles emotion and long-term memory to name a few. Emotion plays an important part in the formation of memories: emotional events are often remembered with greater accuracy and vividness than events lacking an emotional component. During times of particular emotional intensity, the amygdala and other areas become active, which influences the encoding or consolidation of the memory of this event. As an example, during a birthday party, you’d feel happy having fun celebrating with your friends and family. This happiness would make this memory “stronger” and influence how you recall it later on in the future.

Studies have shown that the nostalgic narratives we have when we recall these events feature the self as the central character (like a protagonist or main character in a story). They also focussed on interactions with other important “characters” such as friends or loved ones, or momentous events like a birthday party or graduation. Another example of this could be driving past an old neighborhood, and you recall memories from your childhood. When I go through my old neighbourhood, I remember playing football with friends and walking around with my family; these memories are about me and what I did with other people that stood out to me. A lot of these cases studied had “positive expression” and the majority of ones that seemed more negative (such as showing indications of loss) were recalled in such a way as to make the memories seem more positive. An example of this could be making the memory or story about overcoming adversity rather than being explicitly about said adversity.

A trigger for nostalgia would be something that reminds you of times that had a particular emotional mark on your life. That could explain why listening to music from when you were a kid or a teenager feels so wistful – it’s because these years were an important part of your life, where you were developing your own identity. Psychologists call this the reminiscence bump. There has been a strong causal link between negative moods and nostalgia, which suggests that we’re more likely to feel nostalgic over the past when the present isn’t as good. To add to this, people who rate higher on the Affective Neuroscience Personality Scale (a way to measure someone’s tendency to sadness) were more prone to feeling nostalgic.

One reason we’re more likely to feel nostalgic during gloomier periods of our lives is to combat it. Relative to a control group, people who just recalled a nostalgic memory reported less attachment to anxiety and higher self-esteem. The reward centres’s stimulation and involvement in this process could also explain the pleasant sensation when recalling these memories. Even if they weren’t necessarily a favourite, they were of emotional significance previously. As a result, this could be deliberately triggered to be used as a coping mechanism, like looking at old pictures or familiar music to seek comfort in the past and distract from the present. However, like a lot of things in life, too much of it could be bad. There is a potential for this to become more of an indulgence, a crutch or addiction to the brain’s rewards for the past rather than living in the present.

Music and Media

When we consume music and media that appears familiar we receive a ‘feeling of knowing’. The sensation feels like you remember the memory associated with the work but can not recall the exact details

There are 2 types of musical memory, implicit and explicit, and emotion has a part to play in both. Implicit memory processes occur mostly in the right temporal lobe and involve forming our memories of the melodies. Explicit in the left temporal lobe involves the retrieval or remembering of these melodies. Interestingly, the stored information for a certain piece could be more abstract (in the belief that music is encoded by the perceptual memory system). What this means is something you’ve probably experienced, the recognition of sounds and songs despite some slight changes like instrumentation, volume or tempo. So you’re able to recall songs even if you hear them in a slightly different form like a remix or if it’s performed with a different instrument, which makes the triggers for the emotions and feelings behind these songs of your past much broader. Songs can invoke autobiographical memories and emotions (nostalgia being the third most common in this study). These emotions also act as a “memory enhancer”, enhancing our ability to recall events in our life from triggers like music, but also verbal or pictorial material in the same way.

This isn’t just for songs in pop culture; it can be extended to other media like movies and even videogames. A song or melody from your favourite video game during childhood or teenage years fits into this, per the reminiscence bump. These melodies that often get repeated every time you load it up or reach a certain point in the story have strong emotional impacts and form good memories. The use of leitmotifs (recurring themes in musical composition) in the pieces and even slight changes in tone or instrumentation means that games can leave such imprints with a song without explicitly using them. The battle theme from any Pokémon game feels familiar because it plays every time you fight a wild Pokémon. To contrast, the song “Undertale” from Undertale is only explicitly used in one part of the game. But it feels so familiar because its leitmotifs are used in the home screen of the game and briefly strung throughout the game in other moments and songs. 

The aforementioned study explicitly says:

“Emotional music we have heard at specific periods of our life is strongly linked to our autobiographical memory and thus is closely involved in forming our view about our self.”

Memory and Alzheimer’s

As discussed, things like music can trigger nostalgic emotions and not only evoke memories of ourselves but enhance our abilities to do so because of the emotions associated with those memories. This has been found to be true even in patients with memory disorders like Alzheimer’s. In a study where people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s listened to music the experimenters thought would be familiar to the participants, a majority of them not only recovered memories but also remembered details of those memories. While it’s no secret that age affects memory, further analysis showed the patients displayed the effects of age on their memory recall, but not the effects of Alzheimer’s. It’s important to note that music isn’t unique in this.

This can be further developed into a type of therapy given to people with Alzheimer’s or dementia called Reminiscence Therapy. As an extension to triggering nostalgia on purpose as a coping mechanism, music from someone’s past can be used to help them recover memories of their past, even if ordinarily they would have great difficulty doing so. Memories in this reminiscence bump of childhood, teenage and young adult life remain vivid, even when short term memory systems are failing. And as previously discussed, recalling these memories can increase one’s feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.

Nostalgia is an interesting thing. It went from being an abstract feeling represented in classic literature, to a disorder akin to depression and homesickness, to what we now think of it as that weird positive sensation whenever we think back to the past. The present is turbulent and crazy, and our lives and our selves are ever-changing; yet nostalgia can be a tinted lens we use to seek comfort in what once was, sometimes even finding parts of ourselves we may have forgotten.

“Nostalgia paints a smile on the stony face of the past.”

Mason Cooley

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