Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Liaoning Normal University asked study participants to rate their level of pain from thermal stimulation while watching nostalgic images – depicting old cartoons, childhood games or retro sweets – compared to more modern images. During the tasks, an MRI machine also scanned the 34 participants.
“By managing their discomfort, rather than eliminating or reducing (unpleasant) stimuli, people can use nostalgia to reframe their painful experiences,” said Joe Yazhuo Kong, one of the study’s authors, in an email.
“It’s cool to find more and more research that bridges the overlap between these psychological and emotional constructs that we study, and these biological and behavioral responses,” said Cox, a psychologist who specializes in nostalgia. She was not affiliated with the study.
Because it’s both rare and expensive to use MRIs for psychological research, Cox says, not much was known about the biological mechanisms underlying these positive nostalgia effects.
“During this process of nostalgia-induced pain relief, the thalamus plays a crucial role,” Kong told CNN.
The thalamus, often described as the brain’s relay station, is responsible for transmitting sensory information and motor signals to the cerebral cortex. The new study showed that the thalamus takes in this “nostalgic information” and triggers a better-controlled pain response. Viewing nostalgic photos also decreased activity in two areas of the brain linked to pain.
And it’s not just old photos that can trigger positive nostalgia reactions – music, movies, or certain stories can also trigger them. The same goes for smells, like perfume, or the taste of certain foods, like childhood sweets or cookies that remind someone of home.
All of these nostalgia triggers could prove useful in the future in providing people with cheap and easily accessible pain management tools.
Cox and Julie Swets, a doctoral candidate at Texas Christian University, are also working on research on how nostalgia can be used as a resource to manage conflict in romantic relationships and increase satisfaction between partners.
“What nostalgia is is that sense of connection with others,” Swets said, noting that cues from many studies are designed to make people think of good times with family and friends. “So people who are a bit more shy of intimacy with other people, or more likely to prefer distance over close relationships…those people don’t reap the same benefits of nostalgia.”
“We expect a much stronger analgesic effect if participants observe personal scenarios, regardless of visual or non-visual cues,” Kong told CNN.