Tag Archives: nostalgia

What Remains; On Memory and Holiday Rituals.

I sometimes ask my patients who are young adults their favorite memories about holidays over the years. Their recollections never include gift cards, luxury resorts, electronics, or expensive gifts. In fact, what they describe are snapshots in time, personal and family memories and rituals. Nostalgia derives from two powerful words from Ancient Greece: Nostos (Memory) and Algos (Ache).

A few recent conversations:

    • A quiet day together as a family. Everyone lounging about in pajamas and doing pretty much nothing except enjoying a peaceful day away from everyday responsibilities.
    • Putting up ornaments. Decorations that have been collected over the years, some homemade, those from travels, historical keepsakes.
    • Eating special foods. Cannolis, homemade puddings and breads, a Chinese food feast, a breakfast casserole saved for special occasions, clients frequently tell me about a cultural favorite or personally beloved meal and its significance.
    • Volunteering. Memories of working together as a family for food pantries, churches, neighborhoods, and community centers to serve other families was one of the most vivid experiences described.
    • Visiting. In communities where families live close by, going to several homes of relatives and neighbors and being welcomed by delicious food and laughter at each house.
    • Lights. Walking or driving around and looking at light displays is a fond memory for many clients. From Diwali to Midnight Mass, the flickering of candles and lights creates a glow that is indelible.
    • Fetes. One family has carved out the day after Christmas as a unique yearly celebration. They gather for a decadent seafood feast mouthwateringly anticipated every year, where everyone pitches in to cook and clean.
    • Family photos. Young adults show me pictures of their family gathered together for a yearly photograph; on a staircase, at the table, by the tree, in the yard. As the years go by, seeing familiar faces aging can have a lot of impact, and later, the missing faces.
    • Road trips. Taking long family road trips together are both humorous and slightly hellish memories for many. Enforced togetherness on the way to see other family members or take a vacation can be a challenge. One of the families I work with is driving over 2000 miles in the next 10 days to see loved ones, a potential plot for sitcoms. How to stay engaged and not irritated or frustrated is a family challenge. And Memory-Making.
    • Love from a distance. From the use of FaceTime, to family Zoom sessions during the years of COVID-19, a new tradition in our unconscious has become connecting and celebrating with loved ones from afar.

The beauty of personal and family rituals is part of our neuropsychology. Also see The Neuropsychology of Nostalgia

Pumpkins and mental health: psychology for the season

Today, a friend who owns a Lebanese bakery in the Washington DC region sent me a pumpkin and goat cheese tart. The scent is unbelievable. According to neural science/perception researchers at Johns Hopkins University, it is a powerful scent. The smell of this autumn flavor often triggers familiar, cozy memories, creating nostalgia and comfort.

In neuropsychology, this is known as the familiarity effect, or the exposure effect, on brain functioning. Dr. Jason Fischer, from Johns Hopkins Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences found that the more you encounter something and the more familiar it becomes, the more it gets ingrained in your preferences. Seemingly paradoxical, another psychological component related to desire is scarcity. For 3/4 of the year, we generally do not indulge in the special flavors of pumpkin and fall spices. Our neural pathways associate it with a special time of the year.

Cooking with pumpkin also has a storied history throughout the world. It was considered to be a peasant food in Europe and South Asia, commonly used in various dishes, savory and sweet, because it was inexpensive to grow.

Indigenous North American and South American tribes commonly used varietals of pumpkins and pumpkin seeds for nutrition and health benefits.

Pumpkin is frequently used in Indian cooking, and you’ll find it in several vegetarian curry variations, such as the Keralan dish erissery, where it is paired with coconut, and pumpkin oambal, where tangy tamarind is balanced by sweet pumpkin purée. It’s also commonly used in the dessert/sweet snack pumpkin halwa.

Culture, nostalgia, and neurosensory perception are roommates. 

Also see The Psychology of Nostalgia.

The Psychology of Nostalgia

On holidays, it’s natural to feel a longing for times gone by. Psychologists at the University of Southampton in England, in a large study, found that nostalgia boosted feelings of happiness, decreased loneliness, and enhanced feelings of self-continuity by increasing a sense of social connectedness. Sentimental recollections by study participants generally included loveds ones, which can remind us of a social web that extends across people and time. The international study was conducted in the United States, China, and Great Britain. (Results were published in the cognitive psychology journal, Emotion).

The word nostalgia comes from the Greek: Nostos means homecoming; algos means ache. It was first coined by Dr. Johannes Hoffer, in 1688. However, he described this mal du pays as a mental disorder. He considered it to be a maladaptive neurological condition, where memories kept uncontrollably resurfacing of past times. Recent research, however, such as that conducted by the University of Southampton has actually shown the considerable mental health benefits of nostalgia. 

Nostalgia is about close others (family members, friends, partners), big events (birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, vacations), and settings of import (home, places traveled with loved ones). It involves the self as the central figure, in conjunction with interaction with others.  It is bittersweet, and may be elicited by negative feelings or loneliness.

Importantly, nostalgia, once evoked, helps to re-establish psychological equanimity. It elevates mood, self-esteem, and a sense of social connectedness; it fosters perceptions of continuity between past and present; it increases meaning in life; promotes sociable behavior; and helps to fight off thoughts of death and loss. 

Mental Health Benefits of Nostalgia

Nostalgic stories are often brought about by a feeling of loneliness, but as people reminisce about past events and relationships, the study showed that they end up with a stronger feeling of belonging and affiliation.

Stress reduction
In a 2012 study, published in the journal Memory, another research team, (Routledge and colleagues) showed that nostalgia helps people relate their past experiences to their present lives in order to derive a greater sense of meaning. The result of this process was shown to boost mood and reduce stress.

In this 2012 study, Routledge also concluded that Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. Some of the research showed that people who regularly engage in Nostalgia were better at coping with concerns about death and loss.

In an August 2013 study published by the American Psychological Association journal, Personality and Social Psychology, a research team at the University of Surrey showed that Nostalgia can produce increased optimism about the future, through increased self-esteem, feelings of connection, and hope for the future.

On a physical level, nostalgia literally makes us feel warmer. This warm glow was investigated in southern China by researchers at Sun Yat-Sen University. By tracking students over the course of a month, the study found that feelings of nostalgia were more common on cold days. People in a cool room (68 degrees Fahrenheit, or below) were more likely to express nostalgia than people in warmer rooms. That mind-body link means that we may be able to elicit a memory to maintain physiological comfort, at least subjectively. This has important implications for the mental health treatment of anxiety and stress.

Strategies to elicit nostalgia
Looking at photographs
Listening to music
Talking to friends and family
Looking at family memorabilia
Reading poetry or books that evoke a sense of place and time

Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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