A dose of nostalgia can ease pain, study finds

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  • Taking a trip down memory lane may alleviate mild pain, according to researchers from China.
  • They measured the brain activity of participants viewing nostalgic-themed images, and rated the pain caused by a heating device.
  • Participants felt less pain when observing triggers of childhood memories.

Reflecting on the times you felt safe and carefree does more than make you happy; it can also reduce pain perception, a new study says.

According to the researchers, a sentimental longing for a period in the past decreases activity in pain-related activity areas of the brain.

Their findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, detail how, when a group of adults were presented with images designed to induce nostalgic feelings, they felt less pain from a heating device, compared to when they were shown images that did not evoke childhood memories.

The experts believe their results provide proof that the thalamus, a key brain region for pain modulation, is also related to the analgesic (pain-relieving) effect associated with nostalgia.

The researchers, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, say their findings offer value for the development and improvement of non-drug, psychological pain relief methods for mild pain, such as headaches.

Monitoring brain activity

For the study, the team used fMRI scanners that measure and monitor brain activity. They then assessed this activity in 34 adults who were shown objects or scenes from childhood that were designed to evoke childhood memories. These included popular sweets, cartoons, and playground games.

Non-nostalgic images from modern life were also shown to the group, which, however, did not evoke nostalgic feelings.

During the bittersweet experiment, the participants were subjected to a heating device which caused a painful level of heat on their forearm.

Results

The nostalgic-themed images reduced pain ratings, compared to the non-nostalgic images, and also reduced pain activity in two regions of the brain linked to pain perception.

“Notably, the current study found that, after being shown nostalgic stimuli (vs non-nostalgia or control stimuli), participants reported significantly weaker pain, which was not the case for those shown non-nostalgic stimuli,” the researchers wrote.

Interestingly, this effect was most pronounced when the volunteers experienced the lowest level of pain – when the researchers increased the pain intensity level of the device, the nostalgic images weren't as effective at reducing perceived pain levels. 

This could be because severe pain occupies more cognitive resources, and consequently diminishes the analgesic effects of nostalgia, they explained.

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