Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trick or Treat: Our Brain on Nostalgia

Halloween Week: 1977 and 2011

Why do we get a warm fuzzy feeling when we recall nostalgia and old memories? My first love and college sweetheart, depicted above with me, reminisce almost every day. Not only does memory recall give us an emotional lift, it also is an elixir to reinforce positive well being and boost self-regard…right now: amidst a downturn in the economy, Wall Street fallout, war, and a general malaise within our Western Culture and world.

What is compelling, is that neuroscience has evidenced-based support to illustrate our brains on nostalgia. The findings: Nostalgia is a treat - no-tricks.

Photographs are one of many forms of memory-inducing stimuli and since our first language was visual - and many of us are proficient in visual literacy - we gravitate to photos. And although memories are not hard-wired in our brains, for we alter them as we experience life, we often attach positivity to them and re-code them. These memory updates might explain why when we look at a photograph from “the old days,” we usually experience a positive emotion, and we reinforce the positive association in that memory. And we feel really good in that present moment.

The part of the brain that does the lion’s share of nostalgic work is the amygdala, what e-colleague neuroscientist, Patrick calls: the “emotional seat of the brain.” You may wonder: “So what is the upside to experiencing nostalgia?”

In his studies, Patrick found that researcher, Wildschut, discovered evidence that people who claimed feeling nostalgia, had “increased social bonding and increased positive self-regard.” Furthermore, Patrick says: “a brain that supports consciousness, [brings about emotions and the self-awareness] that we’ve all experienced: depression, self doubt, lack of motivation.”

If we can look at photos or even recall a memory in our heads – even a negative one – our well-developed human brain has the capacity and the very willing ability to override a negative memory and insert a positive one. This is huge. Can you imagine the DYI shift we can make by just recalling a happy memory? Can you imagine our own eradication of negative emotion? Can you almost sense the surge that we might feel toward our own self-motivational behavior?

Our 5 (almost all adult) children look forward to having a Halloween costume. They love the playfulness and fun socialization that the holiday sets up. (Our two college enrolled men report that 97% of the co-eds dressed this past weekend in skanky attire…but that is a different newsletter for a different time.) All of them have favorite memories of Halloween’s gone by, as we do; I imagine we all have these memories.

I am suggesting that we do not have to wait for Halloween to make ourselves feel good. We can feel good right now. Get out that high school yearbook, scrapbook, and childhood family photo album and go nostalgic on all those around you. Perhaps just close your eyes and think of a memory. When we use our recall to re-experience and then re-encode memories, we neuroscientifically make ourselves feel legitimately, wickedly good.

One neuroscientist concludes: “Nostalgia is exceptionally good at making us feel better when times are tough. It’s a little mental pick-me-up that reminds us of good times, good friends and a why it’s great to be alive.”

Mindfully Yours,


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