The Science Of Nostalgia

Illustration by: Marit Simonsen

The magic of nostalgia is that it can involuntarily make you revisit moments that have long gone by.

I ́ve sniffed nostalgia in gingerbread cookies and the scent of wet mud, stared at it through my static childhood neighbo- urhood in Oslo and even tasted it through the street-side delicacies of yet another childhood city, Lahore. It ́s quite a com- mon phenomenon, yet one that is often taken for granted and hardly ever questioned. Has it ever taken you by surprise and made you question its purpose?

Nostalgia’s notorious past

Surprisingly, nostalgia, which is all about the past, has quite a notorious past of its own. Coined in 1688, the term literally means ‘homesickness’ and was actually considered a medical condition for centuries. It was even feared as a fatal malady amongst soldiers. The physiological and anatomical theories, which came forward in those days, pinned it on poor cerebral circulation, resulting in melancholy, while mental theories viewed it as a disorder of the mind, sometimes resulting in partial or complete insanity. However, by the end of the 20th century, nostalgia gradually outgrew the shadows of its past and quite surprisingly earned a new reputation. One associated with warm old times and a casual yearning of the past.

Basking in the warm sepia tinted glow of Nostalgia

Reminiscing about the good old days often equates to: The sky was bluer and the grass greener minus the teenage heartaches, bad hair days and awful fashion choices. So what if I was a miserable geek in high school? I still look back at those days fondly.

Interestingly, for many the past might not have been very rosy, yet nostalgia is a way of reliving and recreating those moments through a monocle tinted with optimism and happiness. Often when old music, movies, trends and foods trigger a trip down the memory lane, we tend to brand them as the ‘good old days’, even if they weren ́t so picture perfect. Such is the magic of nostalgia; it often tends to cast a warm glow on the days long gone by.

Time travel

Nostalgia has the power to transport us to a time and moment we’ve already spent and experienced. It’s the closest you can get to time travelling without building an actual time machine (which might never happen, though I’ll always keep my fingers crossed for this one).What do you think is the difference between experiencing something and remembering the same thing? According to some, your mental and emotional state plus your current neurophysiology define a particular moment in your life. However, at a later moment, your experiences have altered your neurophysiology and it’s not possible to put yourself in that same exact state. This explains how various nostalgic triggers manage to transport us back in time but what we extract from those memories is also linked to our present state.

While nostalgic triggers can vary for every individual, very often the lines of a book or the melody of a song or perhaps a movie can prompt a trip down memory lane. Or if you’re anything like me you probably attach too much sentimental value to material objects, which are sometimes even useless. Just the sight of them brings back not only memories of how that particular thing came into my possession but also what else occupied my life at that time, the people, the location and just how I was and felt during that phase of my life.

Sniff, sniff

Of all the triggers, scent is the most potent. When it comes to re-living the good mo- ments, we can be led around by our noses. Neurologist Dr. Alan Hirsch studies how smell gets faster to the brain than sounds or sights. The nose is equipped with powerful olfactory receptors that sense smells. When these receptors are stimulated, they transmit impulses directly to your brain. Inter-
estingly, this pathway is connected directly to the limbic system, part of the brain that deals with emotions. This is why smells are rarely neutral – we usually tend to have an opinion about a particular scent, whether we like it or dislike it. Scents also seem to leave long-lasting impressions and bond us to our memories.

A nose for nostalgia

In fact, Dr. Hirsch discovered that a nose for nostalgia could reveal a lot about your geographical background. So if you grew up on the east coast, the smell of flowers would trigger childhood memories, while in the south it would be the smell of fresh air and sea. Or if like me you grew up in Scandi- navia, then the scent of grass, gingerbread cookies and waffles would definitely stir tons of memories.

Natural Prozac

So the final question that pops quite natu- rally is if there’s a higher purpose behind all this reminiscing? Or is it just there to bring back happy memories?
From the viewpoint of evolution, perhaps nostalgia could have presented an evolu-
tionary advantage to the human species as a ‘natural anti-depressant’, to cope with the burdens of higher-consciousness and survi- val? Many psychologists believe that it acts as a motivator, as re-living the good times help you in surviving these bad times.

It’s like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where the ghost reminds Scrooge of how he used to celebrate Christmas when he was a young man and triggers a remembran- ce that can bring back happiness into his present dull life. Sometimes it also makes us come to terms with experiences and choices we’ve made in our past. As George Bailey learns a lesson of nostalgia in the film clas- sic It’s a wonderful life, when he sees what Bedford Falls would be had he never lived. It rewires your thinking from ‘what was’ to ‘what might never have been’ and makes you envision how life could have taken a diffe- rent path and ended up differently. This can sometimes make people more appreciative of what they currently have, says research professor Sara Algoe of the University of North Carolina.

The smell of a sale

On a more practical note, the people invol- ved in the advertising world can vouch most strongly for the purpose behind nostalgic powers. So while today’s consumers are quite aware of how they are being tempted and allured through their eyes and ears by marketers, the lesser-known fact is that even their noses haven’t been left alone. ‘Scent marketing’ is basically what it sounds like, marketers using pleasant smells and aromas to increase their sales. For example a depart- ment store may spray the scent of coffee to allure their customers or the relaxing scent of jasmine and lavender at a hotel. But it’s not just about pleasant smells.
The smells are barely there, but they aren’t there by accident. Ad-makers know that making you feel something is a great way to stay memorable and since smells connect immediately to your feelings, it’s a great way to make you remember their products. Adding a dose of sex or annoy- ing melodies is another way to register in consumers memories. Businesses are hoping that these scents will draw their customers into a serene state, prompting them to spend more and most importantly remember their brand. Some businesses pay special attention to these perfumed details and consider scent an integral part of their overall image, along with music, logo and décor.

Back to work!

All in all, whether indulging in nostalgia helps you in braving rough times or in deci- ding what brand of chocolates you’d prefer to buy, too much of a good thing can be bad, and remember, not long ago nostalgia itself had quite a reputation. So stop reminiscing this moment and get back to your pending work.
On a more personal note, my best nostalgic moments are the ones that just hit me out of nowhere and took me by surprise. Like the time I, after years, again took a bite of gingerbread cookies.



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