Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that can be conjured by events that bear a resemblance to past experiences in a person's life. Familiar music, smells, and other reminders of the past activate nostalgic feelings. Nostalgia is often triggered by sensory stimuli, but it can be elicited by conversations, and even by self-directed memory recollection. Sometimes nostalgic triggers are unexpected surprises, and sometimes they are sought out as a means to bring comfort and happy feelings.
The brain and nostalgia
Nostalgic experiences stimulate metabolic activity and blood flow in several regions of the brain, particularly the frontal, limbic, paralimbic, and midbrain areas. People who listen to music that evokes nostalgia experience greater activity in the inferior frontal gyrus, substantia nigra, cerebellum, and insula than they do when listening to music that does not induce nostalgia.
Interestingly, people who rated higher on the Affective Neuroscience Personality Scale, which measures a person’s tendency to sadness, were more prone to experience nostalgia. This correlation does make sense, as people who generally experience stronger emotions should experience a range of powerful feelings, whether those emotions are happy or sad. But, nostalgia itself is not linked with depression or any other affective disorder. In fact, one study linked nostalgia to an overall trait of resilience.
Why nostalgia feels good
The reward centers of the brain, including the hippocampus, the substantia nigra, the ventral tegmental area, and ventral striatum are activated during nostalgic activity. This reward center involvement explains the very common phenomena of feeling pleasant emotions upon hearing a song from the past, even if the song was not necessarily a favorite song at the time, it was prevalent in popular culture or in a person’s life.
Waking down the hallway of a former school or driving through a former neighborhood triggers reward pathways in the brain, resulting in positive feelings of nostalgia. These good feelings are generally a common response to past reminders whether the experiences in the former environment were considered positive or largely neutral, but not if those experiences were unpleasant or personally hurtful.
Nostalgia can be a useful emotional strategy or a harmful addiction
The positive responses evoked by nostalgia can help protect people from the emotional burden of situational disappointment and even from anxiety. When used as a coping strategy, a person can deliberately trigger feelings of nostalgia by listening to familiar music, looking at old photos, or visiting comforting environments of the past.
However, nostalgia can be so easily provoked that it is possible to become addicted to the pleasure of nostalgia, just as a person can become addicted to any activity that stimulates the reward centers of the brain. Nostalgia can be used excessively as a crutch and the positive feelings of nostalgia may serve as a substitute for living in the present-day if current, real life troubles take more effort than a person can tolerate.
Have you ever considered using nostalgia through music to help a patient cope with a medical procedure?
Noriuchi M, et al. Memory and reward systems coproduce 'nostalgic' experiences in the brain. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Jul;11(7):1069-1077.
Barrett FS, et al. Neural responses to nostalgia-evoking music modeled by elements of dynamic musical structure and individual differences in affective traits. Neuropsychologia. 2016 Aug 13;91:234-246.