Can engaging with nostalgia help you improve your memory? It’s a question many researchers are wondering about. Nostalgia is a new area of brain science and investigation that is capturing the attention and imagination of many healing practitioners and individuals who are looking for new ways to approach their mental health issues. Why? Because over and again studies are demonstrating that when individuals engage with nostalgia, they receive mental benefits. From boosting your self-esteem to improving your motivation and optimism to decreasing loneliness and detachment, it seems that nostalgia has a multitude of uses. This is leading scientists to wonder, what is the relationship between memory and nostalgia, and can experience nostalgia actually improve your memory?
Understanding Nostalgia Therapy
To dig into this question, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of what nostalgia is and how it can help you in general. The evidence has been mounting for a while now that nostalgia can be beneficial to a variety of populations. The research began in earnest after numerous practitioners indicated that exposing their patients with memory loss to nostalgic triggers like music or scents was observed to improve memory and other cognitive skills.
Now, researchers have demonstrated that there is a range of benefits to nostalgia therapy and a variety of ways nostalgia can be utilized for psychological well-being. This has come to the surprise of many researchers. The prevailing wisdom for many decades was that lingering in nostalgic thoughts could lead to melancholy and a lack of motivation. When this was put to the test in experimental settings, however, quite the opposite was observed. In fact, the act of reminiscing about the past, especially about times that were highly emotional, can boost optimism and increase productivity.
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There’s another fascinating benefit of nostalgia: it can decrease loneliness and increase a sense of belonging. This may be one of the most surprising conclusions of the research to date. After all, most of us have had the experience of being alone somewhere new or even feeling lonely at home, and reminiscing about a time when you felt more connected to others. Perhaps you look back at those moments and feel somewhat uncomfortable about them.
But the research has shown that when we are flooded with nostalgia about times when we were more connected socially, it actually increases our sense of well-being in comparison to not reflecting on the past at all. Studies suggest that even if our reflections are bittersweet, in the long run, thinking about times when we were close with others
Caveats to Nostalgia
There is an important caveat to understanding the benefits of nostalgia. Primarily, if you are someone who is diagnosed with depression and you have a tendency toward rumination, nostalgia can negatively impact you. Rumination is a coping strategy where individuals reflect upon the past in a looping way, with the same thoughts repeating over and over. If these memories are particularly emotional, this can have negative effects on mood.
But for most people, reflecting on the past for a brief period of time can have real positive benefits. If you aren’t someone who’s been diagnosed with depression and you often reflect on your memories from time to time, nostalgia can be a great tool for you to utilize for your overall well being.
Can Nostalgia Improve Memory?
When researchers observed that nostalgic exercises and experiences could increase productivity, more questions about the links between nostalgia and memory were generated. This led to an intriguing study by researchers at Cornell University.1 In the study, they hypothesized that by triggering the default mode network of the brain, they could improve memory in the short-term.
The default mode network is the area in the brain that becomes activated when an individual is no longer focused on the external world and its demands for attention. It is often activated when an individual is reflecting on a memory, usually a long-term memory. What was demonstrated in the study is that you can improve short-term memory by activating the default mode network?
This demonstrates that reflecting on long-term memories can improve memory and task performance in general. When individuals participating in the study were asked to match the photos of famous faces that they recognized, they were much more successful at doing so than if they were asked to match anonymous faces. Many individuals will have the intuitive understanding that we have an easier time succeeding at tasks that we have prior experience with. This study demonstrated that the activation of the parts of the brain responsible for experiencing our memories and our reflections improved the performance of the study participants.
Nostalgia Therapy and You
So how can you put this scientific research to good use in your life and even improve memory with nostalgia therapy? To begin, try to identify your nostalgic triggers, especially for the memories that are the most emotionally potent for you. For many people, the music from their youth is a very powerful way to tap into nostalgia. This is because of the powerful emotional impact that music can have on our brain chemistry.
For others, aromatherapy is a key tool in triggering nostalgic experiences. The reason aromatherapy and essential oils are such excellent tools for boosting nostalgia is that of the unique link between our olfactory bulb, which processes our sense of smell, and our hippocampus and amygdala, two fundamental parts of our brain that are responsible for registering memories and experiencing our moods and emotions.
This link between scent and memory is unique to our sense of smell. The rest of the five senses process information through the thalamus first before it reaches the amygdala or hippocampus. Almost everyone has had the almost surreal experience of smelling an aroma from years past and being instantly transported into a memory that hadn’t come to mind in ages. The unique link between our sense of smell and our memory is the reason why.
Stimulating Nostalgia with Scents
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that we can easily trigger nostalgia through utilizing aromatherapy. To begin, you should select scents that you remember from your childhood fondly. Perhaps there were scents that you associated with the holiday season or a perfume that your favorite Aunt used to wear. MONQ Pumpkin Spice blend offers a unique combination of essential oils that reflects some of the most comforting reminders of the fall season, including cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Experiment with the various oils and scents until you find ones that produce a strong emotional reaction within you.
There’s another implication of this link between scents and our memory: we can harness the power of this connection to create new memories as well! This means that if we utilize essential oil diffusers or other techniques for stimulating our sense of smell while we are participating in activities that are positive for our well being, we can solidify positive memories in our brain that we can then call upon by using the same scent!
One way to put all of the research into action to improve memory is to engage with scents when you’re listening to nostalgic music. Utilizing an essential oil diffuser is a great benefit in these situations. By infusing your space with a particular scent, your mind will draw a connection between the nostalgic music and that aroma. Then, when you want to trigger positive vibes when you’re in a more stressful situation, you could whip out your essential oil and have an instant mood booster. You could even experiment with playing nostalgic songs while you are preparing for a task or an evaluation, and reflect upon memories that stir a strong emotional reaction in you.
What’s important to keep in mind in regards to the research on nostalgia is that you do not need to only reflect on positive memories in order to benefit from your nostalgic experience. The fact that often nostalgia is bittersweet does not mean that you’re not receiving the gifts of reflecting on a strong emotional memory. Research shows that whether your memory is of a challenging or enjoyable experience, spending time walking down memory lane can help you strengthen your sense of self and feel more optimism about the future.
The most exciting aspect of all the new research into nostalgia and its potential to improve memory and performance is how much more there is to uncover. Nostalgia has become a very hot topic for researchers and psychologists around the world and they are still determining the best strategies for harnessing the power of nostalgia. By staying current with all the latest discoveries, you can be sure to enjoy the benefits of this exciting tool!
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