Nostalgia Series – Nostalgia: A Chemical Soup

To start things off, we have a quote by a character who is undoubtedly an icon of childhood nostalgia – Winnie the Pooh:

“We didn’t realize we were making memories; we just knew we were having fun.”

Nostalgia, a term coined in the 17th century, initially described a medical condition, a form of melancholy. Today, it’s understood as a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past. It’s not just a feeling; it’s a complex emotional and cognitive state. When we think of nostalgia, we often conjure images of childhood summers, old music, scents that remind us of our grandmother’s kitchen, or scenes from our favourite childhood TV shows. These aren’t just random memories; they’re fragments of our identity, pieces of a puzzle that form who we are.

But why do these specific instances trigger nostalgia? Is it the memory of the ice cream truck jingle that brings us back to carefree summer days, or the smell of a particular perfume that reminds us of a lost loved one? These memories are powerful because they are linked to emotions. Emotional events are stored more effectively in our brains as compared to non-emotional ones. When these memories are positive, they often carry with them a sense of longing, a desire to return to what feels like simpler or happier times.

Nostalgia also has a collective dimension, like how a generation might yearn for the music or pop culture of their youth. This collective nostalgia creates bonds, forming a shared identity based on common experiences and memories. It’s why certain songs or movies become iconic, transcending individual experiences to evoke a shared emotional response.

So, what’s really happening in our brain during nostalgic reveries? Nostalgia is indeed a “chemical soup” in the brain. It involves several areas of the brain, including the limbic system, known for its role in emotion processing, and the reward pathways. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin play a key role. Dopamine, often associated with pleasure and reward, can give us a sense of satisfaction when we reminisce. Serotonin, linked to mood regulation, can contribute to the feelings of happiness and well-being associated with nostalgic memories.

Nostalgia, as the etymology suggests, is a feeling of homesickness when we encounter instances that remind us of things that take us back to our favourite memories. As such, nostalgic triggers can take form in any piece of one’s past, be it a place such as one’s school or good ol’ Amul advertisements. It is something that is unique to each one of us. Everyone has weaved their past differently, and specific threads bind us closer to the past than others.

The triggers of nostalgia are further amplified by human emotion. Studies show that nostalgia is connected to negative emotion, often a sign of detachment from reality and a longing to return to one’s comfort zone. When feeling deeply nostalgic, people romanticize the past and desperately try to go back to it. This desperation intensifies the triggers and makes seemingly mundane and generic things a call for the past.

This gives birth to a false sense of nostalgia or a rosy retrospection. This cognitive bias distorts one’s perception of the past and often exaggerates it. This deception causes us to develop a feeling of declinism towards the present and a false sense that the past is completely superior compared to the present. 

When does notalgia hit us? As we grow older, the number of triggers increases as such. So we take it for granted that it is easy to rationalize that older people tend to be more nostalgic. However, there are other factors which cause us to feel nostalgic. 

It hits us hard when we revisit a place brimming with memories. All it takes is one trigger and we end up traipsing down memory lane. Be it photographs, places, music etc, they serve as triggers for nostalgia. However, they are often hidden in plain sight and we don’t notice them until certain events cause us to.

Nostalgia is a coping mechanism. Its warmth comforts us from the cold reality that we live in. It serves as an easy retreat, especially during periods of significant life change like moving out, graduating, experiencing a loss and more. However, we must recall that nostalgia isn’t the present reality. It may be the experiences that we seek refuge from but what’s happened has happened and nothing is going to change that. The inability to move out from the past and face the adversities of the future stunts growth. 

While nostalgia does have a poignant undertone, the sentiment should not necessarily be classified as “bad”. It is not the “demonic neurological disease” that it was once described to be. Recent studies have shown that the sweet aspects of nostalgia outweigh the bitter ones. In fact, people are now encouraged to induce nostalgia by going through old photo albums or listening to music when they feel lost or discombobulated. The warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia have been shown to combat feelings of loneliness, depression and existential dread. You begin to feel more connected with your past and more affiliated with your surroundings. Nostalgia renders meaning to the things around you, be it a family heirloom or a prized possession you never wish to throw away. It’s funny how seemingly trivial elements can completely change our perception of objects. You’d never have thought you’d be sentimentally attached to your worn-down, murky-brown dining table, but here we are. Nostalgia leaves behind a sense of belonging as people reminisce about their childhood, friends, family and vacations. Sure, everyone yearns to go back to the good ol’ days, but the elusive quality of the past is precisely what makes it seem good. In a way, nostalgia teaches us to be more grateful for our environment. Whether it is the small scribble you made under your dining table when you were three or the scent of a random detergent that takes you back to your grandma’s home, it teaches us to truly value the mundane in life.

So, even though nostalgia is after all a soup of chemicals, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy said soup. Bon Appetit!


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