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This is what happens inside your brain when you’re feeling nostalgic

Ever wondered what makes nostalgia feel so unique? A new study could have answers.

Nostalgia is one of those emotions that can be hard to define. Despite its dominant presence in pop culture, many of us would struggle to describe exactly what nostalgia is. Is it a happy feeling or one of sadness? Is it comforting, or does it have an unsettling effect? And perhaps most importantly, what’s actually going on inside our brains when we feel it?

A new study may have some answers. While everyone’s experience with nostalgia will vary depending on a number of factors (including what triggered it in the first place), a new article published in the journal Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience has outlined a potential ‘model’ to describe what happens in the brain when someone feels nostalgic. 

Described as a “neural model of nostalgia”, the model is made up of four key elements – self-reflection, autobiographical memory, emotional regulation and reward – each of which work together to create the experience of nostalgia we’re all familiar with.

They then took a closer look at each element – including the brain regions involved – and compared it with previous studies to determine how they work together to create nostalgia. 

The four elements of nostalgia

Nostalgia is made up of four key neurological elements.

Self-reflection

The first element the paper’s authors identified was self-reflection – aka the ability to look back on past experiences and reflect on the role we played in certain situations. As such, self-reflection plays an important part in the creation of nostalgia because it allows us to draw emotional lines between our past and current selves.

Autobiographical memory

Autobiographical memory is simply our ability to remember our own personal history – an ability which obviously plays an important role in being able to look back on the past. In particular, the type of autobiographical memory recollection associated with nostalgia is seen to be uniquely positive – instead of ruminating on the past and focusing on what went wrong, nostalgia tends to be about indulging the past and sitting with it. 

Emotional regulation

The emotional complexity of nostalgia requires the brain to practise emotional regulation. While most people would associate with nostalgia with good things, part of the nostalgic experience is that ‘bittersweet’ feeling of longing or absence that comes with it. As such, our brains have to balance both positive and negative emotions at once, which has an overall soothing effect on our emotional state.

Reward

There’s a reason why people seek out nostalgic experiences, and while there’s always a bittersweet part of the emotion, it tends to be a mostly positive experience that activates the part of our brains associated with reward processing. This is why watching an old movie or revisiting childhood hobbies can make you feel good. 

With more and more of us tapping into nostalgia to self-soothe in times of uncertainty, it’s interesting to understand exactly how it works. And while knowing how nostalgia works may not impact the way we experience it, it’s fascinating to understand how the different parts of the brain work together to produce this unique emotion. 

Images: Getty

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