Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding

Alan R. Hirsch, Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, LTD.
[ to cite ]:
Alan R. Hirsch (1992) ,"Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 390-395.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 390-395


Alan R. Hirsch, Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, LTD.

Nostalgia, or the bittersweet yearning for the past has been eloquently analyzed in terms of society and consumerism, but what of its neuropsychiatric substrate and its implication? (Havlena, et al). It is these I shall address today.

Within the psychiatric framework, nostalgia may be considered a yearning to return home to the past -- more than this, it is a yearning for an idealized past -- a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory -- not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out. For a personal example of screen memory think of your first ever vivid memory. Although to you it seems a realistic recall of an early childhood event, it in fact is a compilation of memories all integrated into one. This can be demonstrated in psychoanalysis: during the analysis of the transference neurosis, the patient's earliest memory undergoes changes and divides into multiple components that are separate, definable childhood memories.

If one defines nostalgia as a yearning for an idealized past, the bittersweet nature of it becomes clearer. One can never return to this past, it never truly existed. And the present reality, no matter how good, can never be as good as an ideal -- which nostalgia has created. Thus the saying "you can't go home again."

Nostalgia, unlike screen memory, does not relate to a specific memory, but rather to an emotional state. This idealized emotional state is framed within a past era, and the yearning for the idealized emotional state manifests as an attempt to recreate that past era by reproducing activities performed then and by using symbolic representations of the past.

Idealized past emotions become displaced onto inanimate objects, sounds, smells and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions. This same mechanism of displacement is utilized in medicine for its negative impact in the treatment of alcoholism. Disulfiram (Antabuse) is used as an adversive conditioning agent to inhibit recurrent use of alcohol in addicts. (Kaplan, et al 1988, p. 227).

The nostalgic urge to recreate the past within the present is, in many ways, a driving force for behavior -- how frequently we marry spouses with characteristics reminiscent of those of our parents. As other examples, we may adopt the political affiliations and prejudices of our forebears, become democrats, republicans, or even racists because our parents were.

Similarly, the nostalgic urge to recreate the past explains why so many abused children marry abusive spouses, and children of alcoholics marry alcoholic spouses -- not because their childhood was happy, but rather because they seek to recreate their idealized sanitized memories of their childhood by identifying with symbolic manifestations of the past which they find in their alcoholic or abusive spouses.

This same paradigm governs the repetition of failures on the part of "neurotics" who behave as if oblivious to logical rationale. This is seen in persons with recurrent failing relationships (those marrying seven or eight times), those with recurrent failures at business, and even those with recurrent experiences of being victimized.

Through daily behavior, the nostalgic urges may also be partially gratified -- food choices for example (hence the passing down from generation to generation of family recipes) -- with an actual primitive incorporation into the self of the nostalgic object.

Observing holidays precipitates nostalgic desires, while it simultaneously recreates past experiences, hence fulfilling the nostalgic yearning. Emotionally-laden rituals discharge nostalgic energies through the physical activity of the ritual, while forging linkages with the past. Religious practices may be viewed as an immersion in institutionalized nostalgia -- unchanged over the millenia, hence gratifying nostalgic wishes. This explains how the intertwining of religion with the major holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter) achieves the greatest impact and relief of nostalgic drives.

Thus, nostalgia may be viewed in psychiatric terms as a driving force for actual behavior -- the attempt to recreate an idealized past in the present. By attempting to recreate this idealized past, one discharges psychic energies to fulfill nostalgic yearnings. Some results of these attempts throughout society may be seen in the production of sequels to movies, TV shows, and in the common practice of naming first-born sons after their fathers.

Nostalgia exists in the pathological, as well as the normal, states. Some severely regressed schizophrenics actually live within the delusional system of their idealized memories.(Hill). In pathological bereavement, obsession with loss of the idealized past causes depression.(Kaplan et al, 1988, p. 299). In senile dementia of the Alzheimer's type, or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, where recent memory is markedly hampered, nostalgic memories are still available, hence substituting the past for the present.(Lishman;Hales et al).

On the other hand, in an antithetical state to nostalgia, those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder do not yearn for the past but rather desire to eliminate memory for the past.(Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). However, in both nostalgia and in posttraumatic stress disorder immediate stimuli can precipitate emotionally-laden memories. These stimuli are context specific. For instance, many Viet Nam veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder describe odors of seafood or burning diesel fuel as precipitants for the flashback phenomena.(Kline et al). Flashbacks for those who were Korean veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder describe odors of beaches and wet canvas as precipitants. And Persian Gulf veterans describe gustatory-evoked recall from drinking ionized water.(Coombs).

Homesickness is not true nostalgia, but rather a geographic nostalgia -- a yearning for a different space rather than a different time -- for return to idealized memories of a location and people left behind.

All the senses may be used to precipitate the nostalgic experience -- hearing music (witness the popularity of "classics" of the '60s, '70s, '80s, etc.), seeing pictures (photo albums in fashion with their recurring trends), and possibly the most significant, smelling odors.

Even as early as 1908, Freud recognized a strong link between odors and the emotions.(Freud). Anatomically, the nose directly connects with the olfactory lobe in the limbic system -- that area of the brain considered the seat of the emotions. The olfactory lobe is actually part and parcel of the limbic system.(MacLean). Therefore, the most powerful impact upon the emotions is through the sense of smell. In a universal phenomena called olfactory-evoked recall, an odor can bring back a memory from the past. Often a vivid visual image is evoked along with an associated positive mood state. A classic example was described by Marcel Proust in the first volume of his novel A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (English translation Remembrance of Things Past).(Proust). The aroma of madeleine dipped in tea evoked in the author a flood of memories and feelings of nostalgia.

The understanding that odors evoke more powerful reactions than the other senses do is not particularly new. It is well known that the aroma of freshly baked goods conjures up warm childhood memories. When an odor of baked bread was released in a U.S. supermarket, sales in the bakery section increased threefold. Movie theater managers infuse the air in their lobbies with the aroma of popcorn to entice patrons to buy. The smell of chocolate chip cookies released into the air in front of cookie stands induces the people to salivate and buy cookies. The unique, leathery "new car scent" is an exciting enticement to most customers and a positive inducement to make a purchase. Victoria's Secret, a successful women's underclothing chain, uses a special floral potpourri throughout its stores. Many of the customers say that the aroma lifts their spirits.

Some odors, however, can have a negative impact. Among 1002 people queried in a 1989 Gallop poll throughout the United States, the most disliked odor was the odor of fish.(unpublished study, 1989). We might well expect any store located next to a seafood market to have their sales negatively affected by the odor.

An ordinary person can smell 10,000 odors.(Ackerman). But no two people react in exactly the same way.

In general women are more sensitive to odors than are men.(Doty et al). Ethnicity and geographical background strongly affect odor sensitivity. Japanese perfume may not be a popular sales item in North America. Among sample populations taken across the U.S., Korean-Americans had a keener ability to identify odors than either black or white Americans. Native Japanese were least able to identify the odors used in the study.

As might be expected, our judgement as to the pleasantness or the unpleasantness of various odors depends too upon who we are and where we live. In one study, sample populations from 20 nations were asked to evaluate 22 different fragrances.(Davis et al). The populations with similar odor preferences could be grouped geographically. One group with similar odor preferences included residents of California, Kansas, Japan, West Germany, Taiwan, Canada, Italians in Brazil, Phillipines and Taiwanese in California. A second group with similar preferences included residents of Australia, Sweden, France, Norway, East Germany, Finland, Mexico, Japanese in Brazil and Africans in Brazil. This clustering of odor preferences implies a similar clustering of preferences with regard to foods and perfumes.

Among the 1002 people mentioned previously, the particular area of the United States from which they came had a decisive influence on their responses to odors (Table 1).(unpublished study, 1989). Although in general, baked goods were the most common precipitant of an olfactory-evoked recall, among persons from the east coast, the smell of flowers prompted an olfactory-evoked recall of their childhoods. Among persons from the south, the smell of fresh air prompted a similar recall - among those from the midwest, the smell of farm animals, and among those from the west coast, the smell of meat cooking or barbecuing. Evoked memories of childhood are usually associated with a positive emotional state which may then be transferred to the place where the evoked memories are experienced -- the store and the items for sale. The makers of certain oriental perfumes already take advantage of this effect by adding the smell of baby powder to their formulas, baby powder being associated in most persons' minds with a safe, clean environment.

In order to further investigate olfactory-evoked recall, in September of 1991, 989 English-speaking individuals selected at random in Water Tower Place shopping mall in Chicago consented to be interviewed in person for this Institutional Review Board approved study. Respondents reported basic demographic data including the decade of their birth and their predominant geographic location during childhood. Psychological data revealed the existence of olfactory evoked recall, the particular smells that precipitated childhood memories and the overall level of happiness with the individual's childhood.

Demographic Profile: 478 were male, 511 were female. Decades of birth ranged from the 1900s to the 1970s as follows: 1900s - 3, 1910s - 16, 1920s - 43, 1930s - 70, 1940s - 118, 1950s 204, 1960s - 338, 1970s - 197 (Table 2). In order to achieve statistical significance, data for people born in the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s were combined into a single grouping. While most were reared in Chicago (325) or its suburbs (176), 45 states were represented and 39 countries as well.



Statistics were analyzed using Chi-square test on contingency tables or Z-test for the difference between pairs of proportions.

Results: Overall, 85.2% displayed olfactory evoked recall, a generational effect was demonstrated in this regard (Table 3).

Eighty-six and eight tenths percent of those born after 1930 displayed olfactory-evoked recall, whereas only 61.3% of those born before 1930 displayed it. This implies that the marketing of products through nostalgia with odors would be more efficacious in a target consumer group born after 1930. This is not surprising since olfactory ability decreases with age: one-half of those over 65 and three-quarters of those over 80 years of age have a reduced ability to smell.(Doty et al). In addition, memory worsens with age further explaining our findings in the elderly.(Bartus et al).

As mentioned, women have better olfactory ability than do men. Yet in our study at Water Tower, no statistically significant difference was shown between the genders in their self-reports of odor-evoked nostalgia (Table 4). Hence, regardless of sex, aroma is an important nostalgia inducer. Based on the Z-test for the difference between two proportions, a statistically significant generational difference was found (Table 5). Those born from the 1930s on were more likely to have nostalgia induced by food odors and less likely to have nostalgia induced by nature odors than those born before the 1930s.

Those born before the 1930s cited smells of nature including pine, hay, horses, sea air and meadows, whereas those born in 1930 to 1979 were reminded of their childhood by such smells as plastic, scented markers, airplane fuel, vaporub, sweet tarts, and playdough. This shift away from natural odors and toward artificial ones may portend future problems for society. If we are concerned about ecology partly out of nostalgia for nature odors, then 50 years from now, how will the environmental movement be of much concern to the people who are nostalgic only for manmade chemicals?






Clearly, in targeting a younger consumer group, food smells would be more efficacious than would nature smells, but the opposite would be true in targeting an older group. Odors were divided into foul and nonfoul smells. Foul smells (i.e. garbage, urine, manure) were defined by a panel of olfactory experts. Eight and eight tenths percent of those who reported olfactory-induced nostalgia said that foul smells were the precipitant. Eight and seven tenths percent (or one person in 12) reported an unhappy childhood. This was independent of birth decade or gender. And whether one had a happy childhood influenced which kind of smell evoked a childhood memory. The one person in 12 who reported having an unhappy childhood, was more than twice as likely to describe such foul odors as mothballs, body odor, dog waste, sewer gas, bus fumes, and mother's menstrual cycle (Table 6). This suggests that psychotherapists might well inquire into what odor induces childhood memories as a further method of gaining insight into personality.

Interestingly, happiness in childhood did not correlate with ability for olfactory evoked recall -- suggesting the universal nature of this phenomenon.

About equal numbers, 91% of men and 92% of women, reported a happy childhood.

Implications of our findings for marketers are: 1) approximately 85% of both men and women report smell-induced nostalgia -- suggesting smell is an important tool in marketing, 2) consumers under 60 years old are better targets for marketing nostalgia than older consumers, 3) while a wide range of smells could be utilized to induce nostalgic recall, food smells are a more effective stimulus for the younger consumer while nature smells are more effective for the older consumer, 4) in attempting to sell a product now, odorize it to maximize nostalgia of present-day consumers, 5) the product now odorized may come to be the focus of nostalgia for future consumers, 6) use of nostalgia through activation of the limbic system through the sense of smell will produce the strongest emotional appeal as a means of product marketing.

Through odors, nostalgia may be induced with greatest ease. One may speculate that nostalgic desires will increase in the coming decade since it seems likely that the more dissatisfied we are with the present, the more we idealize the past (a temporal equivalent of "the grass is greener on the other side" or as Richard Llewellyn wrote, "how green was my valley").(Liwellyn). Therefore, in the hard times ahead, it will be easier to sell nostalgia.


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