Over recent years a body of research has accumulated showing the psychological benefits of nostalgia. For example, reminiscing about the past can combat loneliness and off-set the discomfort of thinking about death. Now a team led by Xinyue Zhou has shown that nostalgia brings physical comforts too, making us feel warmer and increasing our tolerance to cold.
The researchers began their investigation by having 19 people keep a diary of their nostalgia activities for 30 consecutive days. It turned out that the participants indulged in more nostalgic reverie on colder days.
Next, the psychologists recruited 90 undergrads in China and sat some of them in a cold room (20 degrees Celsius), some in a room at a comfortable temperature (24 degrees), and some in a hot room (28 degrees). The students were asked to say how nostalgic they felt for things like “music” and “friends they’d known”. The finding here was that students sat in the colder room tended to be more nostalgic (students in the comfortable and hot rooms didn’t differ from each other).
A third study was conducted online with Dutch participants and involved them listening to songs known to provoke nostalgic feelings. The students who said the music made them feel nostalgic also tended to say that the music made them feel physically warmer. A fourth study with Chinese students found that those who were being nostalgic perceived the room they were in to be warmer.
Finally, the researchers instructed 64 Chinese undergrads to think either about an ordinary event or a nostalgic event from their past, and then they had to hold their hand in an iced bucket of water for as long as they could stand it. You guessed it – those students who indulged in nostalgia managed to hold their hand in the water for longer. Crucially, the link between nostalgia and greater pain tolerance wasn’t mediated by differences in general levels of positive or negative emotional feelings, which suggests the effect had something to do with nostalgia specifically, not just being in a better mood.
Based on their findings, Zhou and her colleagues suggested that nostalgia serves a homeostatic function, allowing the mind to return to previously enjoyed states, including states of bodily comfort. Anecdotally, Zhou’s team said this fits with reports from concentration camp survivors, that they coped with starvation by recalling delicious meals from the past. This homeostatic account is also complemented by neuroimaging evidence showing that the same brain region – the anterior insular cortex – is involved in representing the physiological condition of the body and in emotional awareness.
If nostalgia plays this kind of “as-if” function, allowing us to travel mentally to preferable states, it raises an interesting evolutionary question about motivation – the adaptive benefit of this homeostatic function is obvious, but taken too far, could it drift into complacence or submission?
The researchers called for more research to see if nostalgia can combat other forms of physical discomfort, besides low temperature. Such findings “may further establish nostalgia as a remarkable adaptation built on the human capacities to think temporally and self-reflectively,” they said, “an adaptation that provides an exquisite mechanism to anchor the organism in prior felicitous states.”
Zhou, X., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Chen, X., and Vingerhoets, A. (2012). Heartwarming Memories: Nostalgia Maintains Physiological Comfort. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0027236