Nostalgia can reduce perception of pain, study shows

Observing pictures that trigger childhood memories is linked to a reduced perception of pain, a new study finds.

(CNN)The next time you feel aches or soreness, you might consider skipping the pain reliever and reaching instead for an old photo.

Nostalgia -- that sentimental feeling of longing for the past -- can reduce pain perception, according to new research published in the journal JNeurosci.
Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Liaoning Normal University asked study participants to rate their level of pain from heat stimulation while looking at pictures that were nostalgic -- depicting old cartoons, childhood games or retro candy -- compared with more modern pictures. During the tasks, an MRI machine also scanned the 34 participants.
    Researchers found that observing pictures that triggered childhood memories was linked to participants reporting weaker feelings of pain.
      "By managing their discomfort, rather than eliminating or reducing the (unpleasant) stimuli, people can use nostalgia to reframe their painful experiences," Joe Yazhuo Kong, one of the study authors, said in an email.
      "Nostalgia is a predominately positive emotion that people easily perceive in their lives," said Kong, a research group leader at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Lab for Integrative NeuroImaging of Pain. "For instance, people can feel happy and peaceful when browsing their pictures grouped with family or friends."
      Previous studies have also demonstrated the psychological and emotional benefits of nostalgia. One study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology showed that nostalgia -- triggered by a writing task -- decreased the perception of pain intensity among people suffering from chronic pain. Further research found that people had an increased pain tolerance following thoughts of nostalgia, according to Cathy Cox, an associate professor of psychology at Texas Christian University.
        "It's cool to find more and more research bridging the overlap between these psychological and emotional constructs that we're studying, and these biological and behavioral responses," said Cox, a psychologist with a focus on nostalgia. She was not affiliated with the study.
        Given that it's both rare and expensive to use MRI scans for psychology research, according to Cox, not much was known about the underlying biological mechanisms for those positive effects of nostalgia.
        "During this process of nostalgia-induced pain relief, the thalamus plays a crucial role," Kong told CNN.
        The thalamus, often described as the relay station of the brain, is responsible for passing along sensory information and motor signals to the cerebral cortex. The new study showed that the thalamus integrates that "nostalgia information" and triggers a pain response that is more controlled. Viewing nostalgic photos also decreased activity in two pain-related areas of the brain.