The Science of Nostalgia

The Science of Nostalgia: Reasons We Love Looking Back

Nostalgia is a bitter-sweet feeling that can often be just a bit more sweet than bitter. If you’ve ever stumbled upon a sentimental token from your childhood and found yourself in a dreamy reminiscent state, you’ve experienced nostalgia.

Technically, nostalgia is defined as: “A wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s homeland or to one’s family and friends.”

But a technical definition doesn’t capture the magic that a moment or two of nostalgia can bring about. Seeing an elderly couple dance to a favorite song from their youth or remembering your first trip to Disney while you “nom” on some cotton candy can put you in a good mood for days.

Nostalgia is, for now, as close to time travel as we can get.

(Or so we’re told…. *Cue Twilight Zone Music*)

For a brief moment, a passing smell, an old catch phrase or a TV show re-run can take us away from the present stresses of life and can transport us back to a blissful time. No worrying about finances, no stressing about your job, it’s simply you and pleasant memories to indulge in.

Today we’ll be taking a look at how nostalgia works and some ways in which we could find ourselves whisked away on a brief journey to the past.

Far From Home?

A common form of nostalgia occurs in individuals who have emigrated from their homeland to another country or area. Our brains can’t help but process the contrast between the familiar and the new. In doing so, we might find ourselves hyper-attentive to things that remind us of home. When you’re new to an area, you might find yourself making constant comparisons to how things were back where you’re from. In doing so, you’re bound to find more and more things that make you feel nostalgic.

This occurs because a part of our brains called the reticular activating system is helping us identify meaningful occurrences to us. The RAS is a group of nuclei located in diverse areas of the brain. They are primarily responsible for transitions between wakefulness and sleep, but also play a big role in our behavior. One of the reasons that business coaches encourage people to visualize things, write goals, and use affirmations is because these things activate your RAS and help you discover opportunities that you may have missed before.

Have you ever bought a pair of shoes you thought were unique, then started seeing them on EVERYONE? It’s not that the shoes weren’t there before, but now that they have meaning to you, your RAS has gone to work locating them around you.

The Bliss of Childhood Levity

Almost every '90s baby (myself included) has spent at least SOME time thinking about how much better cartoons were back then compared to today.

(Note: I still stand by this...nothing beats coming home to Samurai X, Dragon ball Z and Pokémon in one action-packed block after school. Dragon Ball Super is amazing though, so maybe there’s an argument to be had.)

If we were to somehow measure the quality of cartoons in the '90s, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that they were comparable or identical to those on TV now. Sure, there’s something to be said about the classics, but with the advances in technology we’ve had, it’s no surprise that more and more amazing shows are being developed.

One of the primary reasons we remember the '90s as being so amazing- besides Pokémon Yellow- is because we were children. We perceived the world around us in a relatively limited way. Our biggest concerns were getting decent grades, meeting people like us, and the crazy stuff happening to our bodies once puberty hit. Our experience of the world, thanks to our parents, was relatively untainted and thus, we had way more room to simply enjoy being alive.

We Tend to Remember Things Better Than They Were

As we age and move on from past experiences in life, we tend to reflect upon them with rose-colored glasses. This phenomenon is actually referred to by psychologists as “rosy retrospection”. As explained by Scientists Terrence Mitchell and Leigh Thompson, we often rewrite our pasts positively in order to build our self esteem.

This ties in very closely with our experiences of nostalgia and why it’s such a pleasant occurrence. In hindsight, that first kiss, first beer, or first date seems even more phenomenal than it may have actually been.

This isn’t a bad thing, or something that needs to be corrected. In fact, feelings of nostalgia can be a sign of a normal and healthy human psyche.

We Only Experience the Present, But That Doesn't Mean the Past is Dead

It seems crazy to think about, but there is both a scientific and a philosophical reason that the above statement is true.

Let’s start with the philosophical one.

Perception is Everything

Regarding the human experience, perception and perspective are king. Our reality is ultimately subjective, since we all see through our own pair of eyes. Sure, we can practice empathy and exercise our imaginations to approximate where someone else is coming from, but ultimately we construct our own views based on information we have at hand and our own perspective.

Following this logic, we can both agree that a red flower is red, but we’ll never be certain that your red is the same as my red. The point here isn’t to explore the idea of intimacy of mind-our inability to directly share thoughts or memories- but to emphasize that the human experience is subjective.

This subjectivity is what keeps the past alive in many of us. Our perception of events etches them in our memories in one form or another. Some people stay afraid of dogs their whole lives because of a single bad experience with a puppy as a child. Is that memory somehow dead?

Does its occurrence being isolated in time somehow render it inert?


Our memories are very much alive when it comes to our own human experience.

Now for the scientific perspective. If you thought things were cool so far…buckle up.

Everything You Have Experienced and Will Experience is Happening Right NOW

Quantum physics is the branch of scientific exploration that deals with the nature and behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic levels. Without going into too much detail on the basis of quantum theory, let’s highlight a concept that evolved from the study called superposition.

Superposition is the ability of a physical system to be in multiple states at the same time until it is measured. This idea is the basis of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment.

Allow me to illustrate.

If we were to put a roach into a completely sealed box and enclose it with some poison, we are unsure if the roach is dead or alive until we observe it. Until we open the box or detect the odor of decay- the roach is both alive and dead at the same time.

When observing the minuscule particles that make up matter, this situation is rather common. These particles “seem” to blink in and out of existence constantly, which is why electrons are described by probability and not by location and time. At least, that’s how things seem from our perspective. In the “3D world” where time is mostly invisible, flow is perceived by the change in objects moving through it. It’s a bit like seeing a flower age, a house under construction or ice melting. If we were somehow able to see objects in “4th" Dimensional reality, we’d see every possibility that exists for a particular object. Thus, from the fourth dimensional perspective, all of our possible past(s) are LITERALLY alive in the “now” just as much as all of our possible futures.

Tell us, what gives you that nostalgic feeling?