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Nostalgia warms the body as well as the soul

Today, nostalgia is recognized as a sign of psychological health.

Nostalgia received a bad rap for centuries. It was long equated with homesickness, and thus associated with symptoms of grief and depression.

In fact, the term nostalgia was coined by a Swiss physician, Johaness Hofer, in the 17th century to describe the constant yearning of soldiers for their homes and homeland when they were fighting in distant wars. Crying jags, a lack of appetite and an irregular heartbeat were considered the key symptoms of nostalgia during the 17th and 18th centuries. Hofer and other Swiss doctors proposed several explanations for the symptoms: demons in the brain, changes in atmospheric pressure, and — most amusingly — brain damage caused by the constant clanging of cowbells!

By the early 20th century, nostalgia was considered a psychological illness. It expressed, psychiatrists claimed, an unconsciousness desire to return to the past, and was labeled a repressive compulsive disorder. Gradually, however, as research showed that nostalgia occurred among well-functioning adults and in many cultures, mental health professionals began to decouple nostalgia from homesickness. (This history comes from a fascinating review [PDF] of nostalgia research that appeared in a 2008 issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.)

Today, nostalgia — defined as “a sentimental longing for one’s past” — is recognized not as a pathology, but as a sign of psychological health. Indeed, studies have found that wistful reminiscing about the past builds self-esteem, strengthens social bonds, counters the effects of loneliness, imbues life with meaning and enables us to better integrate our past and present selves.

But that’s not all. A new study, published recently in the journal Emotion, reports that nostalgia may offer us physical as well as psychological comforts. Specifically, the study, which was led by psychologist Xinyue Chou of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, found that thinking about the past helps us feel physically warmer.

And, conversely, we’re more likely to indulge in nostalgic reminiscing when we’re feeling cold.

Science writer Christian Jarrett summarizes this intriguing study, which is actually a series of several experiments, on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog:

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.

Zhou and her colleagues hypothesize, writes Jarrett, that “nostalgia serves a homeostatic function, allowing the mind to return to previously enjoyed states, including states of bodily comfort.”

Something to remember on cold Minnesota evenings next winter.

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