Saturday, April 30, 2022

Nostalgia and Its Analgesia

“Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, of past and present, of dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.”

–Svetlana Boym, Nostalgia and Its Discontents

Nostalgia means different things to different groups of scholars. To historians, nostalgia is bad, “...essentially history without guilt ... an abdication of personal responsibility, a guilt-free homecoming, an ethical and aesthetic failure” (Boym, 2007). To social psychologists, nostalgia is good, “a meaning-providing resource [that] may serve an existential function” by helping us avoid thoughts of death (Routledge et al., 2008).

To cognitive neuroscience types, nostalgia is encapsulated in an fMRI experiment that compares brain responses to pictures of “nostalgic” objects (from childhood) vs. contemporary objects (Yang et al., 2021).1

In this post, my authority on cultural nostalgia is Svetlana Boym, who was the Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard, a Russian émigré, and an extraordinary thinker, writer, cultural theorist, and photographer. Her 2007 essay was adapted from her influential book, The Future of Nostalgia (2001). She viewed nostalgia as a manifestation of collective memory and longing, with two contrasting types. Reflective nostalgia is exemplified by the displacement of immigrants, who may long for a home that no longer exists (or perhaps never existed). Restorative nostalgia, on the other hand, is a dangerous impulse to return to a “pure” (or nationalistic) state of a distant past. Is it fair for psychologists to consider nostalgia as a private reminiscence devoid of a larger context?

A Blast from the Past

The reconciliation between these different views of nostalgia used to be terror management theory (TMT). In this theory, reminders of death (mortality salience) increase in-group favoritism and defense of one's own world view as a way to assuage existential fear. Thus, restorative nostalgia might be seen in the light (or darkness) of TMT. Indeed, instructing participants to write about a nostalgic event lessened mortality salience (Routledge et al., 2008). However, TMT has failed to replicate in several large studies, so there goes that idea (i.e., the link between social psychology experiments and restorative nostalgia, not the concept of restorative nostalgia itself).

Escape from the Pandemic

The COVID memory vortex altered our perception of time and space and warped the horizon of past and future. A restricted sense of the present (and the lack of new cultural output) caused TV nostalgia and musical nostalgia:

Nostalgia became a default listening mode — and for me, the cumulative oldness felt distressingly new. The old problem with nostalgia was that it made it harder to imagine the future. The new problem with nostalgia was that it made it harder to experience the present.

But wasn't this also a way to avoid ubiquitous thoughts of death and constant media coverage (and lived experience) of overwhelmed essential workers, illness, hospitalization, and relatives dying alone? Was there anything special about nostalgia, or would any absorbing distraction suffice? Nostalgia intervention studies during COVID-19 demonstrated improvements in well-being (Wildschut & Sedikides, 2022), but the control conditions didn't include sourdough bread baking, home improvement projects, or Zoom Peloton sessions.

Comfortably Numb

A fleeting feeling of nostalgia can lessen the perception of physical pain, apparently (Zhang et al., 2022) — although the effect looks quite modest to me.


In this study, visual cues were presented for 8 sec (e.g., childhood or contemporary gum), followed by 3 sec of thermal stimulation (low vs. high), a 7 sec wait, and then a rating of perceived pain intensity on that trial. The next picture-pain cycle would occur 10 sec later. Very small downward modulations of cortical activity were observed with nostalgia, but the impressive associations were in the thalamus.


modified from Fig. 4 (Zhang et al., 2022). During pain encoding, the thalamus showed a positive correlation between the BOLD response and the analgesic effect.

While acknowledging that nostalgia is a complicated emotion, the authors stated that...

These findings suggest that the thalamus might play a key role in the nostalgia and pain information encoding process in the possible brain circuit for nostalgia-induced analgesia.

But nostalgia can also induce feelings of emotional pain and sadness. On the very last day I spent at my childhood home, I walked around the backyard and was struck by a staggering sense of loss. My memories of running around and playing wiffle ball - badminton - croquet - nerf football - frisbee — and building a minimalistic tree house and burying dead animals under a cross — were dim and lonely. I just sold the house and my best friend (who used to live next door) was dead and my mother was dead. I mourned in a way that I never did while inside the house, emptying it of all my mother's possessions.

“Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement...”



1 This study found that presentation of nostalgic pictures was associated with enhanced mortality salience, along with increased activation in the right amygdala (Yang et al., 2021). Which is the opposite of previous studies...



Boym S. (2007). Nostalgia and its discontents. The Hedgehog Review. 9(2):7-19.

Routledge C, Arndt J, Sedikides C, Wildschut T. (2008). A blast from the past: The terror management function of nostalgia. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44(1):132-40.

Wildschut T, Sedikides C. (2022). Benefits of nostalgia in vulnerable populations. European Review of Social Psychology 27:1-48.

Yang Z, Sedikides C, Izuma K, Wildschut T, Kashima ES, Luo YL, Chen J, Cai H. (2021). Nostalgia enhances detection of death threat: neural and behavioral evidence. Scientific Reports 11(1):1-8.

Zhang M, Yang Z, Zhong J, Zhang Y, Lin X, Cai H, Kong Y. (2022). Thalamocortical mechanisms for nostalgia-induced analgesia. Journal of Neuroscience 42(14):2963-72.


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