The Psychology Behind Musical Nostalgia

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With all the trendy and wild Tik Tok music of 2020, I find myself drawn to music from the late 2000s and early 2010s. Songs like “Already Gone” by Kelly Clarkson, “Pompeii” by Bastille, and “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol always take me back to when I was a second-grader, slouched on my seatbelt, and looking out of the side window into the distance. They never fail to make me cry inside as if the world was so much simpler when I was a little kid. So, how do these songs from our childhood hit such a soft spot in our hearts? Why are they so emotional and nostalgic?

When we first listen to our “childhood songs,” the auditory cortex (pictured right) converts the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of a song into a coherent whole that can be stored. Then, when we listen to these songs in the future, we stimulate our brain’s pleasure circuit, which releases an abundance of pleasure-inducing neurochemicals into our body, including dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.

File:Primary auditory cortex - lateral view.png

Another part of the brain that contributes to our nostalgic and reminiscent feelings is the visual cortex (pictured left), as it helps us contribute songs to other memories and images. In a 1999 study, authors Matthew D. Schulkind, Laura Kate Hennis, and David C. Rubin concluded that music evokes nostalgia in both general and specific ways. Songs can remind us of general periods of our life, such as our early childhood from the ages of zero to ten. Songs can also bring up specific and vivid memories, which, in my case, is listening to the radio in the car on a cloudy day.  File:BA19 - Visual association cortex (V3) - lateral view.png

Lastly, the fondness and emotional attachment to our childhood songs are credited to the reminiscence bump, a term for the phenomenon in which we remember our developmental years more vividly than any other period due to massive cognitive growth that occurs during that time. To answer the question, we are innately and cognitively wired to feel nostalgic toward songs from our childhood. 

Want to learn more? Check out the sources I used below:

https://slate.com/technology/2014/08/musical-nostalgia-the-psychology-and-neuroscience-for-song-preference-and-the-reminiscence-bump.html

https://www.soton.ac.uk/~crsi/Barrett,%20grimm,%20Robins,%20Wildschut,%20Sedikides,%20&%20Janata,%202010,%20Emotion.pdf

https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4094&context=honors_theses

By Axel de Vernou

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