Can good old nostalgia be a painkiller? Maybe you can check for yourself: Experts believe people can experience a reduction in physical pain – think, a headache from staying up late or back pain from working long hours – if they engage in memories. Inducing nostalgia could therefore involve anything from go through childhood images to play music that brings back good memories of the past.
A new study demonstrates exactly how this process occurs.
Posted in the Journal of Neuroscience last week, the fMRI-based study showed how the thalamus – a gray matter structure in the human brain that plays a role role in pain modulation — also plays a role in the analgesic effect induced by nostalgia.
“The thalamus plays a key role as a central functional link in the analgesic effect,” said Zhang Ming of the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who is the study’s first author. said in a press release.
Nostalgia is the fuzzy, melancholic feeling that walking down memory lane can trigger. While nostalgia may sound bittersweet, experts believe it’s “good for [us]“and has a positive impact on the human spirit – in terms of boosting mood and improving our mental health. Apparently, it can also offset loneliness and boredom while making people less anxious. Not only that, it can help us support change too, and create hope for the future. “As a predominantly positive emotion, nostalgia performs a variety of adaptive functions, including a recently revealed analgesic effect,” the authors wrote in the new study.
The participants were exposed to thermal stimuli and, using brain imaging, the researchers compared the degree of pain they perceived to the level of nostalgia in the images they simultaneously viewed. “[Nostalgia] significantly reduced participants’ perception of pain, especially at low pain intensities. The fMRI analysis revealed that analgesia was linked to decreased brain activity in pain-related brain regions,” they concluded.
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“[A] memory of an event or situation from the past that evokes pleasurable feelings in the present, can easily allow a patient to focus intensely on somatosensory and emotional thoughts and feelings for a time… Plus a no one can evoke these feelings vividly. sensations, thoughts, and feelings, the more effectively they will begin to compete with the unpleasant pain, fear, anxiety, and suffering associated with the current situation,” said Kenneth Gorfinkle, an American clinical psychologist, who was not involved in the study.
But Gorfinkle wasn’t too impressed with the current study — apparently due to its sample size of just 34 participants, all between the ages of 18 and 25. “The research raises many more questions than it answers and needs to be replicated with samples in multiple labs before beginning to draw any firm conclusions about the specificity of nostalgia or the function of the brain structures under observation” , he warned.
Further research is needed, however, to understand the impact of longing induction across the pain spectrum – from chronic to acute, and from severe to mild.
What the authors believe is that the results hold promise for the development of non-drug pain relief methods. This is especially true for mild, low-intensity pain that is not considered “serious” enough to be treated with medication, but which nevertheless causes discomfort to those experiencing it.
“These findings offer implications and perspectives for the development and improvement of non-drug psychological analgesia,” the researchers noted.