How Nostalgia Works

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Quite often, when I am spending time with old friends, we laugh about how we used to get a limo for almost any occasion; from school dances to art fairs and concerts, it did not matter what it was for, somehow we managed to ride in class. There were so many of us silly teens; by today’s standards, we should have rented a charter bus! But the fun was short-lived as a few of us moved away, and our circle got much smaller. And it continued that way into adulthood. My best friend moved across town, and my other bestie moved across the country to Florida. Although, I have to admit, it was wonderful to visit her in the sunny state while it was gloomy here in Michigan!

Fortunately, a handful of us fulfilled our dream of (to date) being lifelong friends; we stood up in each other’s weddings, are still raising our kids together, the kids call us their “aunties” and consider each other cousins. We’ve truly been there as a family through the years and have lifted each other up in life’s most challenging, heart-wrenching experiences. And to think, it all started back in middle school, listening to our mix tapes, singing Prince at the top of our lungs. That’s nostalgia to me.

Nostalgia is an idealized emotional state framed within a past era. Idealized past emotions become displaced onto inanimate objects, sounds, smells, and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions. Although my mama is no longer with us, I can make her sauce or meatloaf and am instantly comforted by the smells as it cooks and the taste as it nourishes my soul.

Sensory memories are stored for a few seconds at most. They come from five senses:

  • Hearing
  • Vision
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Taste

These are only stored for as long as the sense is being stimulated. They are then reprocessed and associated with a memory that may be stored in your short-term memory.

Music is incredibly nostalgic to me and I am sure countless others. Let’s look a little more into that idea.

How nostalgia works in music

I imagine I am back in my mother’s home as the meatloaf bakes and Rod Stewart plays on the Roku, where it once was played on vinyl projecting through wired speakers, in that classic crackling sound. With food, music, and a spring day, my spirit is transformed into another place where nostalgia grabs my heart.

Music has been shown to be an effective means of evoking nostalgia because it can transport the listener to past times and places of their life and awaken associated emotions that are otherwise inaccessible.

Also, listening to nostalgic music is positively associated with self-esteem, and music-evoked nostalgia elevates self-esteem, instills a sense of youthfulness, and augments optimism and inspiration. Sedikides, C., Leunissen, J., & Wildschut, T. (2021). The psychological benefits of music-evoked nostalgia. Psychology of Music.

The study discussed how, in the early 1900s, nostalgia’s conceptualization shifted from a neurological to a psychiatric disorder similar to depression. But in the late 1970s, they started associating words such as warm, old times, childhood, and yearning with nostalgia more frequently than homesickness.

What are examples of sensory feelings?

Examples of sensory language include: Does it feel like butterflies are in your chest? Does it feel like bumblebees are buzzing in your stomach? Do you feel jumpy like a frog? Do you have ants in your pants?

Sensory feelings are essential to our daily experiences, allowing us to perceive and interpret the world around us. They are like little messengers that our body sends to our brain, telling us about our environment and how it affects us. Through these sensory feelings, we can describe the world, express our emotions, and connect with others.

Take, for instance, the phrase “feeling like butterflies are in your chest.” This standard metaphorical description is used to portray the sensation of excitement or nervousness. It vividly captures the fluttery feeling we experience when our heart races before a big presentation, a thrilling concert, or a nerve-wracking first date. It’s as if a lively gathering of butterflies has a fiesta in your chest. This description conveys the physical sensation and adds a touch of whimsy and playfulness to the experience.

Similarly, the phrase “feeling like bumblebees are buzzing in your stomach” is often used to illustrate the sensation of anxiety or fear. When faced with a daunting situation, it can feel like a swarm of bumblebees has decided to make our stomach their temporary home. They buzz and flit about, creating a sense of restlessness and unease. This description captures the physical feeling and helps us visualize and relate to the experience, making it easier to communicate our emotions.

On the other hand, when someone says, “Do you feel jumpy like a frog?” they are likely referring to a state of high alertness, anticipation, or a tendency to react quickly to external triggers. Frogs are known for their incredible leaping abilities, constantly looking for any movement or sound that might signal danger or opportunity. When we compare ourselves to frogs, it creates a vivid mental image of someone who is constantly ready to spring into action. Using this analogy, we can communicate our readiness and alertness effectively, whether professionally or personally.

Finally, when we say someone “has ants in their pants,” we describe a state of restlessness or inability to sit still. This phrase often refers to someone who is fidgeting, constantly moving, or unable to concentrate. Much like ants scurrying about in their anthills, a person with ants in their pants feels an uncontrollable urge to be in constant motion. This description conveys a light-hearted and relatable image that helps us understand and express moments of restless energy within ourselves or others.

What is sensory language and how does it help engage readers and writers?

Sensory language refers to words or phrases that create a connection to one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. It’s a descriptive language that plays on the reader’s senses and is tailored to invoke mental images by engaging the reader’s mind on multiple levels.

Incorporating sensory language into writing or storytelling can have numerous benefits in an educational context. It can engage the reader’s senses, making the text more interactive and memorable. Educators can bring subjects to life by using sensory descriptions, fostering a deeper understanding and connection with the material. Moreover, employing witty and imaginative metaphors can make the learning experience more enjoyable, creating a positive and stimulating environment.

Here are ten top authors who best use sensory language in their writing and their books that exemplify it:

  1. “My Heart Is Like a Zoo” by Michael Hall
  2. “Posy Posy” by Linda Newbery
  3. “My Best Friend Is As Sharp As a Pencil: And Other Funny Classroom Portraits” by Hanoch Piven
  4. “Twelve Terrible Things” by Marty Kelley
  5. “Let’s Go Home: The Wonderful Things About a House” by Cynthia Rylant
  6. “Seaside Stroll” by Charles Trevino
  7. “Arctic Lights” by Debbie S. Miller
  8. “Dogteam” by Gary Paulsen
  9. “Saturdays and Teacakes” by Lester L. Laminack
  10. “All Ears, All Eyes” by Richard Jackson

Looking back on when my youngest son was little, these types of books would have benefitted him with his sensory challenges due to ADHD and Tourette’s.  

How nostalgia works

To summarize, sensory feelings, described through language, such as “nostalgia,” can offer glimpses into our experiences, emotions, and state of being. Whether it’s the flutter of butterflies, the buzz of bumblebees, the agility of frogs, or the scurrying of ants, cooking family recipes or listening to old music, these experiences not only enrich our communication but also help us make sense of the vivid tapestry of human experiences.

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