The Neurology of Nostalgia—Why Do We Long for the Past?


You close your eyes. Suddenly, you’re in 6th grade again — it’s the first week of school. You’re walking through the corridors of your school, eating mom’s hand-made food that magically tastes yummy even when it’s cold, and watching your classmates playing hopscotch. You remember how you would wait for time to fly by so you could run home, only to go back to playing with your friends on the streets outside. When it was dinner time, you’d hear mom calling for you to go back home. At almost bedtime, you’d suddenly remember you had to wrap your notebooks in brown-paper cover. You’d plead mom to help you do it. And then off you went, to bed, feeling excited for the next fun day at school.


Nostalgia is defined as “a feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past”, by the  Cambridge Dictionary. The term nostalgia encompasses that bittersweet feeling of recollecting fond memories of the past. From flipping through photo albums to scrolling through your photo gallery, from rereading the Harry Potter series to Enid Blyton books, or listening to a song from the 2000s that manages to take you back in time — we have countless ways of reminiscing. The mere lingering thought of the good ol’ days can easily feel like a warm, fuzzy hug pulling you closer the more you think about it.


Derived from the Greek words “nostos” (meaning homecoming) and “algos” (meaning pain/ache), nostalgia used to have negative associations historically and was often thought of as a disease. However, the meaning of the word has metamorphosed over the years. Present-day research portrays an entirely different story that has unraveled behind the scenes, through experiments and studies. These studies have found that nostalgia can enrich resilience and happiness amongst humans. Further, the more nostalgia that is experienced, the more optimistic a person is likely to become.


Nostalgia in Neurology: Your brain rewards you and is proud of you!

Experiencing nostalgia cannot be limited by viewing it as solely a feeling. Although nostalgia is defined appropriately, it is often used loosely — ignoring the implications it has on the human mind and brain function.

Have you ever felt like listening to a song takes you back to some visual and cosy memory that makes you smile? Or perhaps a whiff of some flower that takes you back to your grandmother’s garden? Some factors like smell, music or scenery can trigger nostalgia in us. The trigger of nostalgia is usually an environmental factor such as a conversation with a childhood friend, or a certain significant date. However, it may also involve instinctive remembrance of the past. 

Every time nostalgia is experienced, a part of the brain is activated. The performance and activity of the brain’s reward systems and memory system are altered through stimulation. This includes the hippocampus — responsible for long-term memory and factual details of episodic memories, as well as the brain’s reward system, consisting of the substantia nigra, the ventral tegmental area, and ventral striatum.


When the reward systems in the brain are triggered, a chemical known as Dopamine is released. Researchers have led experiments using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to reveal that when nostalgia is felt, there is a close link between the release of dopamine and memories in the hippocampus. The dopamine deposits itself directly in the hippocampus, thereby activating the dopamine system in the hippocampus. This results in a significant improvement in the ability to remember specific memories and details. This justifies how when humans reward themselves at a particular time, they are able to remember that specific memory and information reasonably better. For example, if you scored an A+ on an exam and took your friends out as a treat, you’re more likely to remember the memory even years later, versus if there was no tangible reward involved.


In this sense, nostalgia itself can be considered to be a type of reward since it allows us to relive memories of the past. This also explains how when you think about specific memories or details frequently over time, your ability to recall it is drastically enhanced.


Thus, in our constant stride towards the future, recalling and reliving happy memories from the past and creating the feeling of nostalgia, as a result, can lead to boosted levels of happiness, and reduced stress levels.


Nostalgia Marketing: Your Fond Memories of the Past—Offer Valid Till Stocks Last!

Over the years, the powerhouses of the world — politicians, marketers and large organizations — have taken to nostalgia as a trick under their sleeves. Since nostalgia brings back strong emotion, it is easily used as an appeal, ploying the common person to create connections.


Doodh si safedi, Nirma se aayi, Rangeen kapda bhi khil khil jaaye.” Sound familiar?


Washing Powder Nirma, Parle-G biscuits, Frooti — these are just some of several Indian brands that established themselves years ago and took to nostalgia marketing decades later. The reason they are able to do brilliantly in the market even today is because their brand recall value is immensely powerful. Their products are purchased and advertisements watched because viewers are able to feel an emotional connect and nostalgia of their childhood days. 


An often-used proverb, old is gold, is particularly relevant here. Nostalgia marketing taps into emotions and connectedness, taking people for a trip down memory lane. A marketers’ target audience is likely to remain loyal if they can connect to the brand. Nostalgia marketing allows brands to acknowledge the present without letting go of the past. Consumers today are able to re-experience the past through advertisements, jingles and campaigns. This results in a strong instinct to hold on tight to memories of the past as the uncertainties of the future grow more complex. 


People are also particularly nostalgic around festivals and occasions. Brands are able to capitalise on this through the release of advertisements that strike the right chord, picking up on what stings the most. For example, Cadbury chocolates’ emotional advertisements during the Indian festive season every year. As viewers feel connected to the advertisement, it translates into a connection with the brand. 

Cultural Implications of Nostalgia


Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect!

– Owens Lee Pomeroy


A Professor of Sociology and Personality Psychology,  Constantine Sedikides, describes Nostalgia as the “perfect internal politician, connecting the past with the present, pointing optimistically to the future.” Nostalgia has the power to bring a group of people closer and allows a person to establish a better connection with themselves.


Through the knowledge of its impact and a deeper dive into how nostalgia works — the benefit of nostalgia can be applied to personal lives. Nostalgia can be a harbinger of a sense of calm and joy. However, treading carefully on this front is a must, because it doesn’t take much for nostalgia to become a cycle of negativity. “Those were simpler times, can’t we just go back to those days?” are especially common thoughts when recalling childhood memories. Instead of trying to turn back in time, researchers recommend that the focus must remain on today’s position while recognizing how you were able to bridge the gap between where you are today and where you were years ago. This can also be a signal of growth and positive change. It is also important to acknowledge how the moments that cause nostalgia today have augmented life over the years.

Childhood and the Nostalgic effect on Decisions

As said before, nostalgia arises from memories, and typically it starts when we become young adults. So usually nostalgia is shaped a lot by childhood memories— a time when there were almost no responsibilities and when our thoughts and vision of the world were a lot simpler. It often revolves around idolising this era, and therefore there’s an unconscious attempt to recreate the instances similar to those seemingly perfect memories. We try reaching for things or people that symbolise the past. For example, a person might fondly remember a family recipe from their childhood. It becomes associated with happiness and cosiness, and hence they slowly grow attached to that specific dish. It can translate to more significant life decisions as well, where our preferences of surroundings and people are based on our past. If a person had an experience of living in a spacious home with gardens, shifting to an apartment may seem unpreferable compared to a separate home. 

Culture and religion  

Each person is born into different cultures and religions and how their parents followed their culture directly affects the person. We have a nostalgic urge to follow what our parents did, or rather what we were most exposed to in our years of growth. Strong religious beliefs, superstitions, colourism or racism are some examples of cultural and social elements we are exposed to as a child. Even when we realise what is right or wrong and consciously abstain from wrong thoughts, somewhere deep inside there exist subtle biases. This is probably why many people feel uncomfortable and shocked by certain things people in other countries might do. While for the other people it might be natural, for this person brought up in another culture, whose nostalgic urge is trying to find elements from his own culture, it would seem very different. It can become so strongly embedded in their thoughts that even when many people might criticize them on their beliefs, they would refuse to think otherwise. 

Nostalgia and Dreams

Dreams and memories have a rather interesting connection. It has been found that during our sleep, our brain processes our memories, while simultaneously dreaming. This happens most often in the REM stage of sleep, where the person has the tendency to have vivid dreams. Our most significant and emotional memories affect the nature of our dreams. Hence a dream can actually create contact between us and people we haven’t met for a long time. It can show us places from far away memories and thus trigger nostalgia in us. It can let us interact with our past memories or fond experiences and be a great source of comfort to us. Sometimes we might even feel very strong emotions and the dream may seem so real that they are more impactful than real-life emotions. 

Nostalgia as Therapy 

Nostalgia may be a bittersweet state of mind, but when looked at deeply, its positive aspects outweigh the negative. After all, it’s a filtered recollection of our memories. It is there to trigger positivity in people. It can make lonely people feel less so and give them hopes about their future. It cuts through boredom and gives us something to take comfort in. Our past memories, though altered, make us feel more human and closer to people around us. It can rekindle relationships and strengthen bonds in newly formed ones. When we feel hopeless, nostalgia can remind us that there’s scope for making good memories in future and helps us to push through the tough times. 

For people who feel detached from their past selves, nostalgia is a great tool to create a sense of self-continuity and remind them of the factors that haven’t changed in our personalities. Many people might feel that their lives have been for nought, that there were no contributions from their side. Nostalgia can make them realise the value of human interactions and every other beautiful memory they created in the past.

So take all the time to recount your funniest memories with your childhood friends, or journal your favourite memories. Walk yourself through scenarios from the past — you playing in your childhood home, visiting your high school, going back to your favourite vacation spot. Decorate your room with framed photos and polaroids, throw birthday parties like you’re turning 6 again. Play music (the Ketchup song) on repeat and groove with the beats. The present moment can become a haven of happiness when it’s woven with the fondest memories from the past.

Written by Anushka Bhattacharyya and Sanam Lulla for MTTN

Edited by Avaneesh Jai Damaraju for MTTN

Featured Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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