Nostalgia really can give some people a 'warm glow'

Behind the Headlines

Tuesday December 4 2012

Listening to nostalgic songs could make the cold more bearable

"Nostalgia 'warms the hands as well as the heart'," reports The Daily Telegraph.

Its headline is prompted by research that explores whether nostalgia, often defined as emotional "warmth" about past events, is triggered by colder temperatures, and if it can stimulate physical feelings of warmth.

The research consisted of a series of experiments that found:

  • stronger feelings of nostalgia were reported on colder days and in colder rooms
  • nostalgic music increased the perception of physical warmth
  • recalling a nostalgic event caused people to feel a room was warmer than if they recalled an ordinary, non-sentimental life event
  • recalling a nostalgic event also increased tolerance to painful cold  nostalgic participants were able to hold their hand in cold water for longer than participants who recalled an ordinary life event

The researchers speculate that nostalgia may act as a kind of emotional central heating – when we feel ourselves becoming cold we become more nostalgic, which in turn makes us less sensitive to the cold.

Nostalgia could act either by causing the body to perform processes to correct its temperature, or by tricking the body into thinking it is in a warmer situation. Further experiments are required to determine whether these ideas are correct.

It is worth bearing in mind that any effect of nostalgia on your body's temperature regulation system (homeostasis) isn't enough to keep you warm in severe cold weather.  

 

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Sun Yat-sen University, China; Tilburg University, the Netherlands; and the University of Southampton.

It was funded by a number of different Chinese research foundations and grant schemes and was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Emotion.

This study was covered accurately by both The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, but the Mail's use of the words "listening to the Beatles… can make you feel hotter" may not be representative of the study.

The study reported that participants in the experiment listened to pop music with "themes of love and personal loss". So, while the music used could have included the Beatles, it could also have included Dutch power ballads from the early 90s.

 

What kind of research was this?

The researchers report that there is growing evidence that nostalgia counteracts adverse psychological states.

In this paper, they aimed to explore whether nostalgia could also have a role in maintaining physiological comfort, such as an increased tolerance to cold temperatures.

This paper presents a series of five experiments of differing design. Some of the experiments were randomised controlled trials (RCTs), some were non-randomised controlled trials, and others were cross-sectional studies.

The researchers tried to design the series of experiments so that alternative explanations for findings and weaknesses in the designs of the studies were ruled out or compensated for by other studies.

 

What did the research involve?

The research consisted of a series of five experiments:

First experiment

In the first experiment, the researchers recruited 19 students in China.

They asked them to rate their feelings of nostalgia on a scale of zero to 10 each day for 30 consecutive days, and to report it at the end of each day using their mobile phone. The researchers looked to see if there was an association between the average daily temperature (the average of the maximum and minimum daily temperature reported by a local weather station) and feelings of nostalgia.

Second experiment

In the second experiment, the researchers randomly assigned 90 Chinese students to rooms maintained at three temperatures: 20°C, 24°C and 28°C. The students were asked to complete a five minute "filler task" (a meaningless task designed to clear students' minds) and then a checklist known as a "nostalgia inventory". The nostalgia inventory is based on a series of questions about how nostalgic participants feel about items from their past (such as pets, places, music and films they grew up with).

A comfortable ambient temperature is 24°C, and the researchers hypothesised that feelings of nostalgia would be greater in participants assigned to the room below this temperature. 

Third experiment

In the third experiment, 1,070 Dutch volunteers listened to four pop songs of diverse genres with lyrics covering themes of love and loss. After each song, participants were asked how nostalgic a song made them feel on a scale of one to five and whether the song produced a physical sensation of warmth. The researchers then examined the association between music-evoked nostalgia and physical warmth.

Fourth experiment

In the fourth experiment, 64 Chinese students were seated in a room maintained at 16°C. The participants were asked to either recall:

  • a nostalgic event – a previous event associated with, as the OED puts it, "wistful affection for the past", such as a person's first date, or
  • an ordinary non-sentimental autobiographical event, such as paying your first gas bill

The participants were then asked to rate how nostalgic they were feeling and to estimate the temperature of the room in degrees celsius.

Fifth experiment

In the fifth experiment, 80 Chinese students were again asked to either recall a nostalgic event or an ordinary autobiographical event.

Feelings of nostalgia and positive and negative emotions were then assessed. Participants were asked to place their hand in a water bath maintained at 4°C and remove it when the sensation became too uncomfortable.

The amount of time the participant kept their hand in the cold water was timed.

The researchers examined whether thinking about a nostalgic event would increase tolerance to cold.

 

What were the basic results?

The researchers found that:

  • Participants felt more nostalgic on colder days (first experiment).
  • Nostalgia differed significantly depending on the temperature participants were exposed to. Participants seated in a cold room (at 20°C) were more nostalgic than participants in neutral (24°C) and warm (28°C) rooms.
  • Feelings of nostalgia were not significantly different in participants in the neutral and warm rooms (second experiment).
  • Higher levels of music-evoked nostalgia predicted increased physical warmth (third experiment).
  • Participants assigned to the nostalgia condition perceived a room maintained at 16°C to be warmer than participants asked to recall an ordinary autobiographical event (fourth experiment).
  • Nostalgic participants kept their hands in cold water for longer than participants asked to recall an ordinary autobiographical event. This was still seen when the researchers controlled for positive and negative emotions (fifth experiment).

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that, "nostalgia  an emotion with a strong connotation of warmth  is triggered by coldness. Participants reported stronger nostalgia on colder (vs. warmer) days and in a cold (vs. neutral or warm) room... Higher levels of music-evoked nostalgia predicted increased physical warmth, and participants who recalled a nostalgic (vs. ordinary autobiographical) event perceived ambient temperature as higher. Finally, and consistent with the close central nervous system integration of temperature and pain sensations, participants who recalled a nostalgic (vs. ordinary autobiographical) event evinced greater tolerance to noxious [painful] cold."

 

Conclusion

In this series of experiments researchers found a consistent association between nostalgia and perceived perception of physical warmth.

They also found that colder environments are more likely to provoke feelings of nostalgia.

It has been suggested that nostalgia could maintain psychological comfort. These experiments suggest that nostalgia could also maintain physiological (physical) comfort. Nostalgia could act either by causing the body to perform processes to correct its temperature or by "tricking" the body into thinking it is in a warmer situation.

However, further experiments are required to determine which mechanism is operating to create this physical response.

While interesting, it is difficult to see what, if any, practicable applications could arise from this research.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on twitter.

Links to the headlines

How the fab four can warm you up: Researchers find nostalgia, and even listening to the Beatles, can make you feel hotter. Daily Mail, December 3 2012

Nostalgia 'warms the hands as well as the heart'. The Daily Telegraph, December 3 2012

Links to the science

Zhou X, Chen X, Sedikides C, et al. Heartwarming memories: Nostalgia maintains physiological comfort. Emotion. Published online March 5 2012

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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