Opening up your grandmother’s photo albums and taking a trip down memory lane is a great way to tap into feel-good emotions, but can it also cure a headache? A new study out of the Chinese Academy of Psychology suggests it might!
In this study, scientists showed one group of participants images from childhood that were intended to invoke pleasant feelings of nostalgia. A control group was shown pictures of modern life.
While viewing the pictures, participants received painful sensations of heat on their arms. (Anything for science, amirite?)
Surprisingly, participants rated the pain levels much lower when looking at pictures depicting childhood versus the control group.
How does nostalgia reduce pain?
It has to do with the thalamus.
The thalamus is made up mostly of gray matter. It is the part of the brain that helps us process sensory input, including pain signals. It’s like a middle man relaying sensory signals between the brain and the body. Additionally, it helps regulate our sensory domains (except our sense of smell), governs motor language function, some cognitive functions, as well as mood and motivation.
Interestingly enough, the thalamus is also where the brain encodes nostalgia.
When participants viewed nostalgic images, it reduced activity left lingual gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus, two hard-to-pronounce regions of the brain that deal with pain perception.
Can nostalgia be a substitute for painkillers?
The impact of nostalgia on pain perception was limited in this study. The effects were most pronounced when low levels of heat were administered to the patients’ arms.
There was a threshold, however, that even warm and fuzzy feelings couldn’t block out. The higher the pain, the less effective nostalgic images were on relieving pain.
Still, it’s promising research.
Why you shouldn’t get too excited – yet.
Let’s acknowledge some obvious shortcomings of the study. First, it’s hard to see how any of this translates to managing chronic pain.
In the study, the pain was acute and the participants were aware that it would go away. The perceived permanence of pain can affect a person’s perception of it.
Also, it was a controlled environment with a small sample set. Further research is needed before we make any declarative statements on the efficacy of nostalgia for pain management.
What else can nostalgia do?
Here’s the thing – we know that nostalgia does have positive psychological benefits, even if it won’t replace your ibuprofen.
Nostalgia has been shown to counteract feelings of loneliness and increase a sense of belonging and wellbeing. It’s also used in memory care settings to help Alzheimer’s patients as well patients with other neurodegenerative diseases regain memory.
Plus, it’s a mood booster!
Have you ever been a funk and then immediately perk up when a song you loved as a kid comes on? Or maybe you see a pair of shoes that look just like a pair you owned when you were little (because these things do come back into fashion).
It feels good!
Ideas for Tapping into Nostalgia
If you’re looking for a mood-boost, or even to test the pain-relieving theory, there are a few ways you can harness the power of nostalgia.
- Stream episodes of a show you used to watch growing up
- Turn on a playlist from an early decade
- Look back at old pictures and marvel at your impeccable fashion choices from middle school
- Make a meal you would’ve eaten as a kid (peanut butter and jelly sandwich, anyone?)
- Do a visualization exercise, using a fond memory as the setting for your practice
And then see how you feel! Maybe it can tamp down a nagging headache or pull you out of a funky mood. Either way, it’s worth a shot.