March 3, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Laura Bello Rodríguez invites us to take a trip down memory lane - explaining some of the benefits of nostalgia for our mental health.

Laura Bello Rodríguez
19th February 2021

‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson starts playing. It’s a Friday evening in June 2019. You have just finished your last exams and are at a house party with your friends; chatting, dancing and singing. Summer has begun.  

Suddenly someone calls you from the other side of the room to help them cook dinner. It’s your flatmate. You are brought back to 2021, where you are locked at home, in the middle of a pandemic. You are sitting on the sofa with your headphones on, listening to ‘Billie Jean’, daydreaming of these memories. ‘God, how much I miss those times‘, you say to yourself, ‘I wish I could go back to that day’.

We have all felt nostalgia at some point or another. Triggered by listening to a certain song, smelling a particular perfume, looking at an old picture or having a conversation with a friend that starts with: ‘Hey, do you remember when…?’. We all know how it feels. That bittersweet sensation of remembering a good experience from our past that we know we can’t go back to.  

The word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain), literally meaning the suffering for the return or the home. The first description of the word, back in the 17th century , was therefore used as a synonym for homesickness. In fact, nostalgia was considered as a medical condition that featured other symptoms like an irregular heartbeat and anorexia.

By the beginning of the 20th century, it was categorised as a psychiatric disorder, accompanied by insomnia and anxiety. It wasn’t until the end of the last century that homesickness was really separated from nostalgia. Now we all know that the former refers to the longing for the home, while the latter refers to the longing for certain past experiences.

However, not all memories feel nostalgic. They tend to be the ones when a person is surrounded by close friends and family, and feels at the centre of their interactions with them. Memories where we felt unconditionally loved and protected.

But what is the purpose of nostalgia? Dr. Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College in Siracuse, New York, explains in the ‘Speaking of Psychology’ podcast that nostalgia is a unifying emotion. It unifies us with others; people who are or have been important in our lives, reinforcing our social bonds.

Nostalgia can be more easily triggered when we feel negative emotions, especially ones like loneliness and lack of social support, and is a form of coping mechanism.So it should come as no surprise if we catch ourselves feeling extra nostalgic lately; reminiscing of times before the pandemic, as we face the loneliness we feel during lockdown.

The unifying functions of nostalgia don’t end there. This feeling also connects us to ourselves, helping us make sense of our own identity. Throughout our lives we are constantly evolving, experiencing changes which can be stressful or even scary at times. Those moments when we find ourselves reminiscing, help us to remember who we have been and who we are. It also serves as a way of keeping track of time, especially in important moments of life, reminding us of how quickly the time goes.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion that can boost our self-esteem, have a positive effect on the perception we have of ourselves and strengthen our social connections. This being said, people are often cautioned about living in the past. But can we really spend too much time reliving past experiences? Dr. Batcho says that this is generally not a problem for most people. The reason for this is in the bittersweetness of the feeling. Looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, the mix of positive and negative emotions serves us to revisit the past so we can learn from it, without making us want to stay. Though there are some who may feel trapped in the past at some point or other in their lives; who use nostalgia as a way to escape the reality of a present they don’t want to live in.

At the same time, we must always keep in mind that our memories, both good and bad, are quite selective and distorted. They are not faithful representations of our life experiences and our brains tend to idealise the positive ones, especially those that trigger nostalgia.

So next time you remember how socialising was like before the start of the pandemic, remember that, although these memories might be distorted or idealised, the fact that you are recalling them is quite good for your mental health!

Laura Bello Rodríguez has a background in Biomedical Sciences and a strong inetrest in neuroscience and psychology. She is the website officer of the Global Health Next Generation Network. In the future she’d like to find the perfect match between her love for languages and science communication, either through radio or public engagement.