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The Warm Glow of the Past

Let’s take a trip down nostalgia lane for a moment. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and try to bring to mind a special memory. What came to mind? You might be thinking about a special time with a loved one or a beloved pet. Perhaps you are recalling an event that has special meaning for you, such as your wedding day or the birth of your child. Maybe the thought of Grandma’s cookies flood your senses – so much so that you can actually smell them baking in the kitchen. Or you could be thinking about the happy-go-lucky days of your youth when you were free to be whomever you wanted to be.

How are you feeling? If you’re like most people, you might describe your nostalgic memories as happy, freeing, calming, and comforting. You might even say that you get a warm feeling or that the memory has a warm glow around it. But does thinking about a nostalgic memory actually make us feel warmer or do we only describe it that way metaphorically? A recent study has attempted to answer just that question. In a series of studies, researchers have discovered a link between nostalgia and feelings of physical warmth. In one study, participants were asked to report their level of nostalgia over a period of several days. When feelings of nostalgia were compared to the actual physical temperature of each day, the researchers found that participants were more nostalgic on colder days. In a similar study, participants were randomly assigned to complete a nostalgia survey either in a cold room or a warmer room. Again, participants felt more nostalgic in the cold room compared to the warm room. When the researchers explored this finding further, they found that priming people to feel nostalgic by listening to their favorite songs or by thinking about a nostalgic memory actually caused people to feel warmer and perceive the temperature of the room to be warmer compared to participants who were asked to think about non-nostalgic memories.

Taking these findings together, the researchers suggest that nostalgia helps to maintain physical comfort. In other words, nostalgia can be a mental “thermostat” that turns on when someone experiences coldness and helps to reduce that feeling of coldness by increasing feelings of warmth. In a final test of this idea, the researchers assessed whether nostalgia protects the body from noxious, or harmful, coldness. Participants were asked to think about a nostalgic memory (or not) and were then tested for how long they could hold their hand submerged in a bucket of ice-cold water. As expected, if participants thought about a nostalgic memory first, they were able to hold their hand in the bucket longer than if they were not asked to think about a nostalgic memory. In other words, it appears the “warmness” of nostalgia protected participants from the discomfort of ice-cold water.

How can a nostalgic memory have such strong effects on the body? The researchers suggest that the nostalgia-warmth link could be due to the strong mental association between interpersonal relationships (which are often a focus of nostalgia) and warmth, which originates in the infant-caregiver relationship early in development. This interpretation is supported by other research on the connection between bodily warmth and positive interpersonal relationships. Or, it could be that nostalgic memories are about times when one was actually warm – huddled near the fireplace with family or playing in the yard during the summertime. The researchers conclude that more research is needed to determine exactly what kinds of nostalgic memories are brought to mind when responding to feelings of physical coldness. Whatever the case may be, the next time you feel a chill coming on, consider wrapping yourself up in a bit of nostalgia. It really does a body good.

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Zhou, X., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Chen, X., Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2012). Heartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort. Emotion, 12, 678-684.

Matt Baldwin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Matt is interested in existential, humanistic, and cultural psychological approaches to understanding the self. His main area of research focuses on the psychological benefits and consequences of nostalgia, both for one's personal and collective identities.

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