Photos, items, and memories that evoke a strong sense of nostalgia (Taylor Lee)
San Dieguito Academy

Column: The science of nostalgia — a half-opened door

I finished watching “Boyhood,” a film that took 12 years following the casts and rewriting the script each year. As I wrapped up the movie, there was a feeling of emptiness that settled in as my thoughts marinated. 

It made me feel like I was taking a glimpse into someone else’s life. “Boyhood” was a mix of realism and something so evocative that made me question why I was interested in living vicariously through a screen. 

A mix of close-up and eye-leveled shots of baseball games with Dad, Mason shaving his whole head (as most boys are doing during quarantine), and moving from one house to another with a road trip soundtrack drumming on in the background.

It’s 19-year-old Mason crouching on a rock talking to the girl he likes and reflecting on how the moment seizes the present, not the other way around. 

These were parts of “Boyhood” that made it so simplistic and easily transformative. 

We may look back as Mason did on the parts of our lives and wonder if our present time was a worthy trade-off for something that happened in the past. 

Nostalgia is quite a powerful thing that hits us in the guts when we were least expecting it. It can make us feel secure and long for something we miss. 

But exactly why do we reminiscence or look at the past, and what exactly does it bring us? When does this feeling really hit us? 

To understand this, we can take a deeper dive into the brain. 

A sense of familiarity can be stimulated by metabolic activity and blood flow in your frontal, limbic, paralimbic, and midbrain areas. Different parts of your brain elicit different responses. 

Nostalgia can feel good sometimes. The reward center that includes the hippocampus, substantia nigra, ventral tegmental and ventral striatum is activated, and a common feeling of pleasantness overwhelms a person.  

This can explain why your five senses may react so strongly to something associated with memory, whether that be a childhood photo or the smell of fresh oven-baked bread your mom used to make. All these sensory stimuli often trigger nostalgia.  

Victor Cypert, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Northcentral University studies nostalgia concerning rumination and how one’s childhood can affect what they are like as an adult. 

Cypret said it’s not so much about looking back at a certain age, rather it’s about looking back at a specific period in our lives based on age. 

“Nostalgia brings us into contact with memories we cherish, often because the circumstances that surround those memories can never be recreated,” Cypret said. “It’s important to note that memory is not recollective, it’s reconstructive. That is, what we remember is not an exact reproduction of past events but a reconstruction of the past.” 

As we grow, our lifespan retrieval curve shows when memories are cognitively encoded. It is between adolescence and adulthood that hits us the most anecdotally. This is the time where we are forming our self-identity and curiously exploring, trying, failing and trying again. 

However, the way nostalgia impacts people is different, according to Cypret. For someone who does not suffer from trauma, depression or anxiety, nostalgia involves the imago — an idealized depiction of a loved one rather than a painful memory. 

“For the survivor of an adverse childhood experience such as physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a family member, friend or guardian, recalling the past can induce feelings of anger, guilt and shame. So our recollections of the past are colored by our mental health and our past experiences,” Cypret said. 

Nostalgia can be good for us when it isn’t crossing the obsessive threshold over the past. 

“[It] can be good for us when the memories and attendant emotions evoked are experienced and allowed to pass. Consider someone very talented at art or music when they were younger but have since abandoned their passion,” Cypret said. “Reflecting on their childhood could either motivate them to take up their creative outlet once again or it could send them into depressive funk and make them believe they’ve somehow lost something that once defined them.”

As a child, we explored the world wide-eyed and ready to learn more and ask questions, but that childlike spirit doesn’t have to necessarily disappear.

We may long for days where we roamed free around the playground like a jungle or went to the Scholastic Book Fair at our local elementary wanting to buy that 50 cent bookmark or pseudo chocolate eraser. 

But we continue to mature and grow. We know more today than four or eight years ago, after all. 

Maybe nostalgia is a way to sentimentalize certain bits and pieces of the past and memorialize what this moment right now will look like.  

It’s these mundane moments that we’ll long for when we are stepping onto a new milestone. Graduation. Higher education or not. Job. Marriage. Kids. Retirement. Inevitably, death.

But how about the beautiful moments and connections we share in between? How will we long to connect both past and future into a present? 

We coexist as time travelers. At this time, we can try and depict the meaning and varying differences of what meaning really is. It’s as if there was a key that unlocks some doors and you take a stroll and peek into each one of them.

Well, maybe it’s time, dear traveler, to reminisce. This may be a simple nudge to appreciate the past as we continue to create a better future.