Nostalgia brings healing to the brain, especially for people battling pain

Flicking through childhood pictures and reminiscing about the good old days can actually relieve pain, Chinese scientists report. Feeling nostalgic helps people overcome low levels of pain by reducing brain activity, according to their study.

While these feelings have been found to reduce people’s perception of pain, what biological mechanisms are at work have remained a mystery. Now, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences reveal that yearning for a “simpler time” reduces brain activity and could help people overcome low levels of pain like headaches.

“As a predominantly positive emotion, nostalgia serves various adaptive functions, including a recently revealed analgesic effect,” the authors write in the paper. “Human participants’ behaviour results showed that the nostalgia paradigm significantly reduced participants’ perception of pain, particularly at low pain intensities.”

Participants were shown a series of 26 nostalgic images while hooked up to an fMRI machine to measure their brain activity. The images featured scenes and items from a so-called “average childhood” like a popular cartoon TV show, schoolyard game or sweeties. At the same time, participants were exposed to varying levels of pain using a small heat generator on their right forearm — around 10 centimeters above the wrist.

Brain pain study
Researchers used fMRI scans of participants’ brains to see how nostalgia may play a role in the way they perceive pain. (Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences)

Another group was exposed to a different series of images showing scenes and items from modern life, which did not invite feelings of nostalgia, to see whether they perceived pain differently.

Lower levels of pain were recorded for those who saw their childhood flash before their eyes, the researchers found. The bittersweet images also reduced activity in two parts of the brain, known to be involved in pain perception: the left lingual gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus.

Another region, the thalamus, also helps in relaying nostalgia information to parts of the brain associated with pain perception. “The thalamus plays a key role as a central functional linkage in the analgesic effect,” says Dr. Zhang Ming, first author of the study, in a statement.

While there is a wide variety of pain medication for people to choose from, they are potentially addictive.

The findings suggest nostalgia may be a drug-free way for people to alleviate low levels of pain like headaches.

“The current study results reveal that the thalamus, as a critical brain region for pain modulation, is also related to the analgesic effect associated with nostalgia,” the authors write. “These findings demonstrate the analgesic effect of nostalgia and, more importantly, shed light on its neural mechanism.”

The findings are published in the journal JNeurosci.

Report by Tom Campbell, South West News Service

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