Nostalgia may be a drug-free way to reduce pain

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Nostalgia is that warm, sentimental feeling you get from reflecting on the past… but it may offer more than a happy feeling. Through brain imaging technology, a new study suggests that nostalgia may also act as an analgesic – an agent that can reduce the perception of pain.1

Nostalgia decreased perception of low intensity pain

The study, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, used fMRI to monitor brain activity. Brain fMRI – “functional magnetic resonance imaging” – shows areas where there are changes in blood flow. These changes in blood flow can be interpreted as either activation or deactivation of various parts of the brain. 

Both males and females were included in the study. They were exposed to thermal stimuli – heat – at varying intensities. At the same time, they were shown photos: some were classified as “nostalgic” (including references to popular cartoons and candy of the past, for example) and others were classified as “control” (referencing items popular today).2 Participants were asked to rate both the level of pain they felt and the level of nostalgia they experienced. 

Researchers noticed that perceived pain ratings decreased as the level of nostalgia increased; this trend was especially strong at low thermal pain intensities.1 

Nostalgia decreased brain activity in “pain areas”

fMRI images revealed an association between nostalgia and activity of pain regions in the brain. 

These areas included the lingual gyrus – a region linked to vision in the occipital lobe – and the parahippocampal gyrus – an area involved in memory that surrounds the hippocampus. When activated, both regions contribute to pain sensation.

Activity in both the lingual and parahippocampal gyrus decreased when participants felt nostalgic. 

fMRI results also revealed activity in the thalamus – the region of the brain that connects information between the brain and the rest of the body. When both nostalgia and pain were felt, thalamus activation was observed in what researchers called a “predictive” pattern. The study notes that, “the thalamus might play a key role as a central functional linkage in the analgesic effect”.1 

More research needs to be done to further understand the specific neural pathways connecting pain and the feeling of nostalgia. 

 References:

  1. Zhang, M. et al. (2022). Thalamocortical mechanisms for nostalgic-induced analgesia. Journal of Neuroscience. Doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2123-21.2022.
  2. McMurray, C. (2022). Nostalgia can relieve pain. EurekAlert! Accessed on Mar. 1 2022. Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/944264. 

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

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