Nostalgia relieves pain: Just looking at old photos can cure common aches, study shows

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BEIJING — Find yourself feeling particularly refreshed after flipping through old photo albums? There’s good reason. Scientists in China say taking a break to go down Memory Lane and enjoy nostalgia really does relieve general aches and pains.

According to researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, feeling nostalgic helps people overcome low levels of pain by reducing brain activity. While these feelings have been found to reduce people’s perception of pain, biological mechanisms at work have remained a mystery — until now.

Their study reveals 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,” study co-author professor Huajian Cai says in a statement, per South West News Service. “Human participants’ behavior 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 games or vintage candy. 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.

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

Scientists report that people shown glimpses of childhood lore felt lower levels of pain compared to the control group. Images from the good old days 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 played a role in relaying nostalgia information to parts of the brain associated with pain perception.

While there is a wide variety of pain medication for people to choose from, they are potentially addictive and come with the risk of side effects. 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,” says Cai. “These findings demonstrate the analgesic effect of nostalgia and, more importantly, shed light on its neural mechanism.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Report provided by South West News Service writer Tom Campbell.