Nostalgia: Why it is good for you

The past is not just a foreign country, but also one we are all exiled from. Like all exiles, we sometimes long to return. That longing is called nostalgia.

Whether it is triggered by a photograph, a first kiss or a treasured possession, nostalgia evokes a particular sense of time or place. We all know the feeling: a sweet sadness for what is gone, in colours that are invariably sepia-toned, rose-tinted, or stained with evening sunlight.

The term “nostalgia” was coined by Swiss physicians in the late 1600s to signify a certain kind of homesickness among soldiers. Nowadays we know it encompasses more than just homesickness (or indeed Swiss soldiers), and if we take nostalgia too far it becomes mawkish or indulgent.

But, perhaps, it has some function beyond mere sentimentality. A series of investigations by psychologist Constantine Sedikides suggest nostalgia may act as a resource that we can draw on to connect to other people and events, so that we can move forward with less fear and greater purpose.

Sedikides was inspired by something called Terror Management Theory (TMT), which is approximately 8,000 times sexier than most theories in psychology, and posits that a primary psychological need for humans is to deal with the inevitability of our own deaths. The roots of this theory are in the psychoanalytic tradition of Sigmund Freud, making the theory a bit different from many modern psychological theories, which draw on more mundane inspirations, such as considering the mind as a computer.

Experiments published in 2008 used a standard way to test Terror Management Theory: asking participants to think about their own deaths, answering questions such as: “Briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.” (A control group was asked to think about dental pain, something unpleasant, but not existentially threatening.)

TMT suggests that one response to thinking about death is to cling more strongly to the view that life has some wider meaning, so after their intervention they asked participants to indicate their agreement with statements such as: “Life has no meaning or purpose”, or “All strivings in life are futile and absurd”. From the answers they positioned participants on a scale of how strongly they felt life had meaning.

The responses were influenced by how prone people were to nostalgia. The researchers found that reminding participants of their own deaths was likely to increase feelings of meaninglessness, but only in those who reported that they were less likely to indulge in nostalgia. Participants who rated themselves as more likely than average to have nostalgic thoughts weren’t affected by negative thoughts about their mortality (they rated life as highly meaningful, just like the control group).

Follow-up experiments suggest that people prone to nostalgia were less likely to have lingering thoughts about death, as well as less likely to be vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. Nostalgia, according to this view, is very different from a weakness or indulgence. The researchers call it a “meaning providing resource”, a vital part of mental health. Nostalgia acts a store of positive emotions in memory, something we can access consciously, and perhaps also draw on continuously during our daily lives to bolster our feelings. It’s these strong feelings for our past that helps us cope better with our future.

Thanks to Jules Hall for suggesting the topic of nostalgia. If you have an everyday psychological phenomenon you’d like to see written about in these columns please get in touch @tomstafford or ideas@idiolect.org.uk

This was my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here.

Spike activity 06-06-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Psychedelic chemist, godfather of Ecstasy, and lover of phenethylamines, Alexander Shulgin, has left the building. PhysOrg has an obituary.

New Republic looks back at 50 years of the landmark account of psychosis ‘I Never Promised You a Rose Garden’.

The US Secret Service wants a sarcasm detection tool for Twitter reports The Telegraph. Their irony detection tool is apparently still switched off.

Aeon Magazine has a piece on how artificial intelligence is being used to develop the first generation of sex robots. Voight-Kampff plugin for Tinder coming soon.

British folk: Now that BBC Future is available to people in the country it is based in, do check out its large cache of excellent psychology and neuroscience articles.

Mosaic has an extensive article on the US Military’s interest in boosting the brain by passing small electrical currents through it.

Go check out this excellent piece on ‘mirror neurons’ and what they’re likely to be actually doing from Nautilus magazine.

Advances in the History of Psychology blog has an interesting piece on how Little Albert may not have been correctly identified after all.

How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher of Mind Daniel Dennett brings some wisdom and describes the four steps to arguing intelligently over at Brain Pickings.

The Economist has a great interview with risk psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer.

A festival of anxious art

If you’re in London during June, the Anxiety Arts Festival is surprisingly diverse and interesting series of events that looks at anxiety through film, theatre and visual arts.

The festival is being curated by the Mental Health Foundation who have put together a genuinely exciting programme that avoids the curse of constant niceness and goes into some quite challenging areas.

Highlights include the darkly comic play Non-stop Exotic Anxiety, Ian Curtis and Joy Division biopic Control, South London Gallery exhibition The Military Industrial Complex on consensual reality, the irrepressible CoolTan Arts event Mad Hatters Tea Party, and Hearing Things – a theatre production of improvised scenes with mental health service users, professionals, and professional actors.

There’s masses more events and its one not to miss.
 

Link to Anxiety Festival.

Happy Birthday Tetris!

Released on 6th of June 1984, Tetris is 30 years old today. Here’s a video where I try and explain something of the psychology of Tetris:

All credit for the graphics to Andrew Twist. What I say in the video is based on an article I wrote a while back for BBC Future.

As well as hijacking the minds and twitchy fingers of puzzle-gamers for 30 years, Tetris has also been involved in some important psychological research.

My favourite is Kirsh and Maglio’s work on “epistemic action“, which showed how Tetris players prefer to rotate the blocks in the game world rather than mentally. This using the world in synchrony with your mental representations is part of what makes it so immersive, I argue.

Other research has looked at whether Tetris’s hook on our visual imagery can be used to help people with PTSD flashbacks.

And don’t forget that Tetris was the control condition is Green and Bavelier’s now famous studies of how action video games can train visual attention

In my own research I’ve used simple games to explore skill learning. John Lindstedt and Wayne Gray at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have been pursuing a parallel line looking at expertise in Tetris players.

I’m sure there are more examples, if you know of any researching using Tetris let me know. Happy Birthday Tetris!

Spike activity 30-05-2014

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

If you’ve not been keeping up with the internet, there’s been a replication crisis hoedown and everyone’s had a go on the violin.

Political Science Replication had a good summary. Schnall’s reply, the rise of ‘negative psychology’ and a pointed response.

Military Plans To Test Brain Implants To Fight Mental Disorders reports NPR. If only there was some way to avoid traumatising people…

The BPS Research Digest has been hosting some amazing guest mind and brain writers and here’s an index to all their articles.

The Myth of Einstein’s Brain. Neuroskeptic has an excellent piece about how studies of his kidnapped brain don’t actually tell us much.

The Best Illusion of the Year contest has just announced it’s 2014 winners.

Spacetimemind is a new podcast with some good philosophy of mind material.

Neuroscientists win 2014 Kavli Prize in neuroscience: Brenda Milner, John O’Keefe, and Marcus Raichle

The Blind Woman Who Sees Rain, But Not Her Daughter’s Smile. Another fascinating piece from NPR.

Brain Watch asks ‘what happens if you apply electricity to the brain of a corpse?’ Don’t try this at home.

Philosopher fight in the New York Review of Books: Patricia Churchland and Colin McGinn on brains and minds and retorts like only philosophers can manage.