Nostalgia: The Seductive Liar

Ahhh, the good old days! Memories of a better time or a better, happier version of ourselves sparked by a seemingly insignificant sight or smell or even an ordinary drive down a tree-lined road on a random Tuesday.  But beware, nostalgia can be a powerful and deceptive force.

Some nostalgic memories are easy to explain. The smell of freshly cut grass will take me right back to my single-digit years. In my mind’s eye, I can see Poppy in his overalls and newsboy cap riding the John Deere as my sisters and I played restaurant in the shed.  Others are a bit more mysterious – like seeing the movie The Breakfast Club makes me instantly remember a high school crush. I don’t know why… I remember little about this boy mostly because I don’t think he ever even spoke to me. Why that particular movie brings him back to mind is a mystery to me.

The definition of nostalgia has changed over time. The etymology of the word is based on two-word parts meaning “homecoming” and “pain.” The Greek word nostos means “to return” and algos means “suffering.” Nostalgia was originally described as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” by Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688. For centuries, nostalgia was considered a debilitating and potentially fatal medical condition expressing “extreme homesickness.”

What in the world do Necco Wafers teach us about nostalgia?  

Today, we think of nostalgia as a wistful yearning for days gone by. But neuroscience tells us that nostalgia is more than a pleasant trip down memory lane. Memory is important to survival.  We could not carry out the basic functions of living without the powers of recall.  Learning would be impossible and nothing would have meaning. But, not all memories are created equally.

Short-term memories contain information such as where you parked the car or the name of the new oyster bar everyone is talking about.  These memories are stored in the frontal lobe. But long-term memories — such as the name of your childhood friend or every word of Bohemian Rhapsody — are moved via neurotransmitters (through a process called “consolidation” that often happens during sleep) to the limbic system.

Researchers have used brain imaging technology to discover that when nostalgia is felt,  dopamine is produced and deposited directly into the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for learning, emotions and memories.  That shot of dopamine results in a host of positive mental states and behaviors such as improved mood, increased social connectedness, and a more optimistic outlook on life.

Studies also show that after experiencing a nostalgic episode people are more generous, tolerant, and altruistic. One reason for this is that nostalgic stories often include some kind of problem or hurdle to overcome. They are etched in our memories when the outcome is positive – especially when the positive outcome is the result of another person’s kindness.  This makes us feel connected and protected.

Other studies show that nostalgia can heighten creativity. Because nostalgia often evokes a greater sense of belonging, meaning, and security, we are more open to imagining future experiences and more open-minded about present experiences which ultimately encourages creativity.

That’s the seductive part.

Here’s the liar part.

Most of our nostalgic experiences are idealized versions of the way we want it to be, not necessarily reality. Psychoanalysts call this a screen memory – not a true recreation of the past, but a patchwork of positive and powerful emotions stitched together with all of the negative emotions filtered out.

Since it is a natural bias is to remember the good without any of the pain or hurt that may have also been part of the event, some scientists regard nostalgia as an emotional state rather than a recall of memories. In a sense, nostalgia tricks the brain into creating so that we can “relive” the best version of our memories.

Nostalgia is a luminary who fixes all the potholes on memory lane, plants blooming trees on either side, and delivers sunshine, blue skies and hot little convertible for the ride. 

In addition, when we are under stress or feeling lonely, we may be wired to automatically and unconsciously reach for nostalgia. Were you more nostalgic during the isolation of the pandemic?  That social isolation made many of us feel lonely, and those feelings of nostalgia were the result of our limbic systems hard at work trying to evoke memories of happier times when we felt more connected.

So, the next time you are feeling nostalgic, take that trip back in time with the satisfaction that you’re likely to reap positive mental benefits from the experience. However, before you start lamenting about how life was so much simpler, easier, better, or happier back then, keep in mind that what you remember is likely to be far better than what actually happened.

Wouldn’t it be great to know you’re living the good old days before you leave them? 

It’s so easy to vacation in yesterday and dream about tomorrow. The thing is… what you did yesterday is how you got where you are today. What you do today determines where you’ll be tomorrow.

Here. This. Now.  Be present. 


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. Melissa,
    This is a fascinating read!
    This right here is sitting with me in a such a thoughtful way:
    “In a sense, nostalgia tricks the brain into creating so that we can “relive” the best version of our memories.”
    It is a what I might call a ‘healthy distraction’.
    As you, I subscribe to: Here. This. Now. Be present. #mantra

  2. Our memories are kind of a highlight reel. It’s all good stuff with none of the drudgery, boredom, or pain mixed in. We might remember the route that we walked to school and the friends who we walked with and some of those conversations. We actively discard how day after day after day it was the same route, sometimes in really crappy weather and that we couldn’t wait for school to be over with. We remember the carefree days of driving around in the car listening to the radio, but we fail to recall how bored we were many times, that there was nothing to do, no one was out, and we had nowhere to go, and we were bored senseless.

    I love how you talk about nostalgia filling in the potholes… that quote is priceless. The good old days were not always that good. I love to reminisce and reflect and remember, but it’s best to make sure that we aren’t retouching all the negatives. Thanks for a really great piece and some excellent insights, again!

  3. Dear Mellisa,

    A truly amazing essay. Past, present, future do accurately described. So revealing, the origin of the word nostalgia. Fascinating to say the least. It is said that some bad moments in the past have
    to be experienced in order to ‘arrive’ at; for example a wonderful time in life. There seems to be an element or ‘force’ driving such time and experience factors.

    Thank you, Melissa.


  4. Thank you, Melissa.
    This are the good old days. {sic}
    I work with the recovery community. One of the 12 steps is to make amends, and time and again (not a bad title for your piece, btw), I talk with people who take the step and find out that their memory of what happened and the other person’s are very different, even opposed. We can be less of a soldier, more of a scout when it comes to our memories, without betraying them (vis à vis Julia Galef).
    Your insight is spot on.
    Be well.