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Nostalgia and the Power of Music

Have you ever noticed that the older you get, the harder it becomes to enjoy the music that’s popular on the radio, and the more you crave the nostalgic songs of your youth? This isn’t just because you are a curmudgeon at heart. Psychologists and neuroscientists are demonstrating that your preference for nostalgic songs from your youth is actually hardwired into your brain. 1

To understand why nostalgic songs from our past have such a powerful effect on us, we have to look at a confluence of neurological factors. To begin with, music triggers deep emotional pathways inside of our brain. The only other experiences that garner as much emotional reaction as music is falling in love or taking drugs. When you hear music that you love, the circuit in the brain responsible for the release of feel-good neuro-chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine becomes activated. This is why putting on music you enjoy can instantly shift your mood from a negative one to one that is more joyful.

Furthermore, fMRI experiments have demonstrated that when you listen to a song, your brain’s visual cortex is stimulated. 2 This indicates that as soon as a song is listened to for the first time, specific memories and images come to mind almost instantly. This also explains why particular songs can connect you right away to a certain relationship in your life or remind you of a trip you took some time in the past.

There’s another fascinating reason that there’s such a deep connection between memory and music: we rely on our short-term memory in order to make any sense of music at all. The rhythms and melodies of our favorite songs only make sense to the extent that we can string them together in a coherent order. Some have even suggested that our brain’s ability to make sense of music is part of what lays the groundwork for the functioning of our memory in general.

nostalgic songs Nostalgic Songs & Your Brain

Music has the power to stimulate this kind of brain activity regardless of age. But when you are between the ages of 12 and 22, this activity is put into overdrive. The hormones associated with growth during these years convince our brains that the experience we’re having with the music is extremely important. It wasn’t just your imagination that you’ve never quite loved a song the way you did when you were 16--there were numerous neurological factors that made this the case.

Throw in the fact that most of the time the memories of listening to our favorite songs from middle or high school is combined with memories of connecting with our friends, these powerful emotional experiences become woven into our identity. Some psychologists have even hypothesized that the reason we carry such strong memories from our young adulthood, called the reminiscence bump, is because this is the period of time when we formulate our sense of self. 3 In this sense, the nostalgic songs from our youth aren’t just parts of our experience but are actually the building blocks from which we develop a sense of who we are.

All of this research is demonstrating that incorporating your favorite nostalgic songs into your daily routine could be an amazing way to boost your mood. The emotional pathways that were triggered when you first heard these songs in your youth can be reignited in your brain when you turn on your favorite tunes. This is why so many clinics and practitioners who treat patients with Alzheimer’s or other memory diseases are employing what’s being called nostalgia therapy.

Nostalgia Therapy & Music nostalgic songs

Basically, nostalgia therapy is harnessing the power of nostalgia to trigger positive memories in individuals--even those who have trouble remembering who or where they are on a given day. Researchers and practitioners have discovered that even for patients who have lost their ability to communicate or reflect about their life can easily remember nostalgic songs from their youth. Patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, as well as dementia, can benefit from this kind of treatment for numerous reasons. Not only is their mood often uplifted by listening to music, but they can also often recall other facts about their lives and regain a sense of self and place through listening to the music. 4

Nostalgia therapy is even expanding beyond music, providing dementia patients with a variety of triggers from their past, including old TV shows, movies, and even objects and consumer goods that would have been familiar from their past. All of these approaches help tap into the deep emotional pathways that may have been formed decades prior.

The incredible benefits that patients with memory conditions are experiencing through nostalgia therapy are inspiring many practitioners and scientists to investigate whether these benefits can be experienced by those with healthy minds as well. This is leading to some fascinating work done by researchers showing that nostalgia therapy has enormous potential and benefits.

nostalgic songs Making Nostalgia Work For You

With all the mounting evidence of the benefits of nostalgia therapy, you may be wondering how you can apply these benefits to your life. Finding ways to incorporate nostalgia in your life can be a great tool for regulating your emotional system and helping you manage difficult or challenging situations.

Alongside music, aromatherapy is probably the other sensory stimulant that can help trigger memories. In order to maximize the effects of nostalgia therapy, it makes sense to combine your efforts. Using nostalgic songs in combination with familiar scents can maximize the potential to trigger memories. When you combine aromatherapy with nostalgic songs from your youth, you can jumpstart your brain into the positive memories that have been proven again and again to increase motivation and your sense of connectedness with others. Let us know what you’ve experienced when you explored the connections between music and nostalgia!

Photo Credits: ViewApart/, Poptika/, DutchScenery/, AntonioGravante/

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