It’s going to be cold today, with temperatures hovering in the bone-chilling teens.
If you start feeling nostalgic, don’t be surprised. According to a study published last week in the journal Emotion, cold temperatures often evoke fond and meaningful memories of the past. And, conversely, sentimental thoughts of times gone by can make us feel physically warmer.
These finding may also explain, the study’s authors note, why we instinctively link nostalgia — defined by one dictionary as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past”— with the concept of warmth, When telling a nostalgic story, people often refer to a person as “warm-hearted,” for example, or describe themselves as being “warmed” by a particular memory.
Five related experiments
The study, which was conducted by a team of English, Chinese and Dutch researchers, consisted of five separate experiments. Four involved undergraduate students at China’s Sun Yat-Sen University. The fifth study was done with Dutch volunteers who ranged in age from 12 to 68.
For the first experiment, 19 students were asked to make a note of when they felt nostalgic during a 30-day period. (Most of us, according to background information in the study, experience nostalgia at least one to three times a week.) When these records were compared with daily temperatures, the researchers found that the students felt more nostalgic on colder days.
In the second experiment, 90 students were randomly assigned to either a cold (68° F) neutral (75° F) or warm (82° F) room. While in the room, they were asked to complete a standardized questionnaire to rate their feelings of nostalgia for 20 items from their past. The study found that the colder the room, the more nostalgic the responses.
The effect of nostalgic lyrics
The third experiment involved more than 1,000 members of the Dutch public who had volunteered to participate in a larger online survey on musical preferences. As part of the survey, the volunteers listened to four pop songs, which were selected by the researchers for their lyrics, which evoked love and loss. After each song, participants were asked how nostalgic the song made them feel and whether listening to it made them feel physically warm. Those participants who expressed the strongest feelings of nostalgia also reported feeling the warmest.
For the fourth experiment, 64 students were placed in a cold (61° F) room and instructed to think about either a nostalgic or an ordinary (non-nostalgic) autobiographical event. They were then asked to guess the temperature of the room. Those who reported feeling the most nostalgic were more likely to perceive the room as being warmer than it was.
Helping to withstand the cold
In the fifth experiment, 80 students were again asked to recall either a nostalgic or ordinary autobiographical event. Then they were instructed to put their hands in ice water and keep them there for as long as they could. The students who had just reflected on a nostalgic memory tended to hold their hands in the water the longest.
“We found that nostalgia ameliorates not only the thermoregulatory discomfort associated with innocuous cold but also the thermal distress associated with noxious cold,” concluded the study’s authors.
So, if you want to feel warmer on this icy December day, try recalling a pleasant memory from your past.
Or, put on your thermal underwear.