Alumna Katie Henderson gets nostalgic…

Credit to ???? on Flickr.

The first week at St. Andrews, regardless of what year you’re in, always feels the same: the cool breeze down Market Street heralds the year’s march towards autumn, and the electric atmosphere is ripe with expectation, excitement and of things not yet past.

The town is alive with reunions and new meetings – mostly occurring in Tesco, as I recall. The annual trip to the poster fair is always a main staple of the week, as is the apprehension that you won’t get a ticket for the first Bop on the Friday.

I miss all of that: I graduated in 2011 and am now facing the prospect of another September in a different place, doing different things, and being with different people. Whilst all of this is not a bad thing in the slightest, I still have a tendency to put on my nostalgia glasses every so often.

We experience nostalgia in all forms – for classic 90’s songs such as the Macarena (from a time when things were a lot more simple), fads from our childhood (think Tamagotchis, Pokémon cards, and those daft mini-skateboards), films that meant a lot to us (I’m looking at you, Disney), and for memories connected to our favourite places and people from years gone by. However, whilst nostalgia is a very real feeling, it is one not well documented in scientific literature. Yet there are various bits and pieces of evidence as to why humans, across the world, experience this amazing – and often reassuring – blanket from the past.

Once considered a medical condition, nostalgia is the sentimental longing for the past through recollections that are usually positive but can be occasionally negative or bittersweet in nature. Much of the literature examines the role of sensory information as a trigger for feelings of nostalgia and nostalgic memories, particularly through the olfactory pathway.

Dr Alan Hirsch has dubbed the phenomenon of connecting smell with the immediate recall of nostalgic memories as “olfactory-evoked recall”, a possible suggestion for this connection being that the olfactory system is closely connected to the limbic system in the brain (parts of which are responsible for emotion (the amygdala) and memory (the hippocampus).  Hirsch also states that it is not the details of the memory evoked by the smell that are important, but the emotions involved.

He also goes on to suggest that we are more likely to associate nostalgic smells with events relating to our childhood and adolescence as we remember this time as being one when we were free from the stresses and the responsibility of being an adult. Also that processes in the brain ‘filter’ past memories as being ideal and positive, even if experiences in our childhood were difficult at times.

Music is also a strong evoker of nostalgic memories: a study by Schulkind, Hennis and Rubin found that popular songs helped to evoke both general and specific memories from the past. The greater the emotion connected with the song, the more able participants were to recall a memory, reinforcing the role of emotion in the recollection of memories from the past. Another study by Barrett et al found that what aided the evocation of nostalgia in participants included familiarity with the song, and to the degree with which a song was associated with a personal memory, good or bad. Interestingly, music that was familiar yet­ – crucially – was not connected to a feeling of nostalgia or a previous experience – was regarded with irritation.

So why do humans possess the ability to experience nostalgia?

It is suggested that nostalgia developed as an evolutionary advantage for the human race to be able to cope with the complexities of the human mind. It acts as a support for negative aspects of the human condition such as loneliness or sadness – a kind of natural mood-booster, if you will.

Some studies have found that people suffering from loneliness are more likely to employ nostalgia as a means of increasing perceptions of social support which in turn reduces feelings of being alone. To back this up, a study carried out by Sedikides found that by inducing nostalgia in participants (even those who had not met before), this resulted in an increase in the perception of feeling accepted by the group and higher positive feelings overall. This would make sense in that by discussing things with people who have shared past events or been party to things that relate to a particular point in time, then  the bonds between the people in the conversation would be strengthened.

Therefore, nostalgia appears to act as a valuable mental resource able to restore emotional human functioning to normal. It appears to work in two ways – by acting in response to loneliness (i.e. by feeling lonely, we feel that others do not care about us, therefore we are more likely to find solace in positive memories in the past) and acting as a restorative (i.e. revelling in these memories increases perceptions of social support, therefore improving mood and reducing loneliness.) However, findings have shown that whilst most people can experience nostalgia, people who respond best to nostalgia’s restorative function are those who possess the personality trait of resilience.

Another study by Lyubomirsky also found that if participants were asked either to write a positive memory down or visualise the memory in their head, the latter category experienced a greater sense of well-being than the former, showing the importance of memory in helping to modify mood. This study is further supported by other literature showing the opposite – rumination about negative events has been shown to lead to a more negative mindset about oneself and the world, and is a key aspect to the maintenance of disorders such as depression.

However, the dark side to nostalgia itself is that it can act as a double-edged sword. There are the possibilities of becoming ‘too entrenched’ in the past, and not allowing oneself to move on and enjoy life in the present.

In addition to this, although nostalgia involves the recalling of positive memories, the emotions associated with these can be painful, acting as a bittersweet reminder of things we have lost forever. For example, we may recall spending time with a loved one who is no longer with us, bringing up feelings of sadness. Alternatively, we may reminisce about our past successes, but feel frustrated or disappointed that things had not turned out the way we had hoped. However, this can be manipulated by changing the focus of the memory. By focussing on the positive memory itself and thinking about how it has shaped you to be the person you are today (rather than dwelling upon the fact that the event or feeling is gone forever), helps to maintain the positive effects of nostalgia upon mood.

So if you’re just a newbie to St. Andrews, or you’re preparing for your final year, get out there and get making some great memories. One day, they might just help you out.