Lately I've become increasingly nostalgic: Nostalgic of my college years, old friends, and my more carefree days without as many commitments and responsibilities.
It's comforting to know that such nostalgia may have some adaptive functions. For one, research shows that nostalgia can serve an important existential, meaning-making function that allows people to cope with the knowledge of inevitable mortality. By increasing nostalgia, and tapping into the deep reservoir of meaningful life experiences, one may perceive life as more meaningful.
Nostalgia may also facilitate creative thinking. In a paper published in 1987, Harvey Kaplan concluded that nostalgia is a "joyous" experience that facilitates "an expansive state of mind" and "a feeling of elation." In a more recent study, Shengquan Ye and colleagues asked 280 university students in Hong Kong to write about a nostalgic experience. They found that the students who included more details in their descriptions imagined more uses for a common object (e.g., newspaper). Interestingly, the increase in positive emotion associated with nostalgia did not predict increased creativity, suggesting that the effect was driven more by cognitive than affective factors.
To explain these findings, the researchers discuss the "constructive episodic simulation hypothesis" of Daniel Schacter and Donna Addis. According to this hypothesis, our storehouse of deeply personal memories acts as a source of details for imagining future events in our mind. Perhaps in the nostalgia study, when the students were primed to think of a nostalgic experience, their activated episodic memories were used as a basis for generating more novel ideas.
This hypothesis is in line with current research in cognitive neuroscience. Roberto Cabeza and colleagues found that an extensive network of brain areas were activated when participants viewed personal photos of themselves. This network included regions associated with self-referential processing (medial prefrontal cortex), visuospatial memory (visual and parahippocampal regions), and memory recollection (hippocampus).
Interestingly, these same brain regions are also crucial for imagining the future. In other words, thinking of the past appears to activate the same mental machinery as imagining the future. A striking demonstration of this can be seen in the case of patients with hippocampal amnesia, who cannot imagine new experiences.
So maybe growing older, and becoming more nostalgic about my past is actually a good thing, providing me with richer materials for my creative imaginings, daydreams, and search for meaning.
© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved
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