Feeling Nostalgic? A New Study Reveals Taking a Trip Down Memory Lane Reduces Low Levels of Pain

When participants were shown photos from their childhood, activity in two parts of the brain that are associated with pain perception reduced.

senior couple sitting on couch looking at photo album
Photo: MoMo Productions / Getty Images

Nostalgia is something most people experience in their lifetime, and flipping through a scrapbook or reflecting on old times with family and friends can feel therapeutic. As it turns out, there's a very good reason for why that is: A new study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that taking a trip down memory lane helps people overcome general aches and pains by reducing brain activity.

Why does looking back on happy memories help make us feel better, both physically and mentally? "As a predominantly positive emotion, nostalgia serves various adaptive functions, including a recently revealed analgesic effect," says study co-author and professor Huajian Cai. "Human participants' behavior results showed that the nostalgia paradigm significantly reduced participants' perception of pain, particularly at low pain intensities."

To obtain their findings, scientists behind the study showed participants 26 nostalgic images while they were hooked up to an fMRI machine to measure their brain activity. The photos depicted scenes and items from their childhood, like popular cartoons, schoolyard games, and vintage candy. While they were shown the images, the participants were exposed to varying levels of pain by using a heat generator on their forearm. Another group of participants was shown photos from life today that didn't provoke feelings of nostalgia.

The researchers found that the participants who were shown photos from their childhood felt lower levels of pain compared to the control group. What's more, the nostalgic photos reduced activity in two parts of the brain that are associated with pain perception. While past studies have shown that feelings have been found to reduce people's perception of pain, this is the first time the biological science behind it has been explained. "The current study results reveal that the thalamus, as a critical brain region for pain modulation, is also related to the analgesic effect associated with nostalgia," says Cai. "These findings demonstrate the analgesic effect of nostalgia and, more importantly, shed light on its neural mechanism."

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