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In a study, researchers said childhood images evoked a stronger response than more current photos. Guille Faingold/Stocksy United
  • Researchers in China say nostalgic thoughts can help ease some types of physical pain.
  • However, some experts questioned this new study and say more research is needed.
  • They do acknowledge that there appears to be some connection between memories and pain, but it’s uncertain exactly what it might be.
  • They add that mindfulness and imagery can be used in some instances to treat chronic pain.

Thinking about fond memories can help ease feelings of physical pain.

That’s the conclusion of a new study from researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In the study, researchers measured brain activity in 34 right-handed female participants between the ages of 18 and 25 as they rated the nostalgia levels of images and rated the pain of thermal (heat) stimuli.

Nostalgic images were not specific to individuals. They were a mix of images featuring scenes and items from an average childhood, such as a popular candy, cartoon TV show, and schoolyard game.

Images in a control group depicted corresponding scenes and items from modern adult life.

Participants reported the strongest effect from recalling fond memories on low intensity pain levels, but overall, viewing nostalgic images reduced pain level ratings, compared with viewing more current images.

The study authors conclude that there is potential for recalling fond memories to act as a sort of pain reliever, but more clinical research on larger sample sizes is necessary to better understand how this works.

Gwenn Herman, LCSW, DCSW, the clinical director of the U.S. Pain Foundation, notes that since the study was done in China, there may be cultural differences in regards to nostalgia.

She also told Healthline that there was a limited sample size and the study seemed overly simplistic.

Herman founded Pain Connection, a national network of chronic pain support groups that support group leader trainings, after a car accident left her in pain and without resources.

“I do not like pain studies that use thermal heat to determine effects on chronic pain. Acute pain is very different from chronic pain,” she said.

“Also, these people knew that the pain was temporary. It did not affect every aspect of these people’s lives like chronic pain does,” Herman added.

“Another point to look at is that many people with chronic pain are stuck in the past and have a hard time accepting that their bodies have changed and their lives have changed,” Herman explained. “I would not encourage them to stay in the past (nostalgia), unless it was something general like music or a movie.”

Kenneth Gorfinkle, PhD, a clinical psychologist who practices in New York at Commonsense Therapy, also found the new research to be lacking.

“Much of the excitement about the neuroscience behind understanding the relationship between memory, mood, and emotion, while plausible, is still quite speculative,” he told Healthline.

Gorfinkle’s clinical work has been at the bedside of people experiencing chronic and acute pain as well as distress associated from medical conditions.

“The research raises far more questions than it answers and needs to be replicated with much larger samples in multiple labs before beginning to draw any firm conclusions on either specificity of nostalgia, or on the function of the brain structures under observation,” he said. “Statistically, it is too common for researchers to report a positive finding as significant when it might well have been found by chance.”

It’s not exactly clear, but experts say there is some relationship between memory and pain perception.

“Each time we recall an experience, we are necessarily reactivating the neurons and networks that were firing during the creation of the memory,” said Kelly Kent, PhD, a specialist in neurorecovery and the co-founder of adaptED, an educationally focused consulting company that helps people develop their own brain-based best practices so they can thrive.

“This also means that each time we recall and experience, we are reforming it, as a new and different set of neurons, and networks are also firing as the recollector is necessarily in a different place and time,” she explained.

As a result, new neuronal associations can be made between old and new experiences.

“This is why memory is so unreliable in general, but especially when the memories are emotional,” Kent told Healthline.

“One of the many tools available to me is deep relaxation with guided imagery,” added Gorfinkle.

He said this tool is similar to classical hypnosis.

“Where fond memories come in is, that recalling what I call a mini-narrative, or a memory of an event or situation from the past that evokes pleasant feelings in the present, can readily enable a patient to place intense focus on the somato-sensory and emotional thoughts and feelings for a period of time,” Gorfinkle said.

“The more vividly a person can evoke those sensations, thoughts, and feelings, the more effectively they will begin to compete with unpleasant pain, fear, anxiety, and suffering associated with the present situation. This type of technique is not new,” he added.

Guided imagery, which uses a person’s five senses, is the best way to remember helpful memories by using one’s five senses, according to Herman.

Kent adds that using nostalgia for pain relief is simply an act of practice.

“The more we practice tuning our attention to one particular thing, the better we are able to access that attunement with future efforts,” she added.

In other words, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Practicing this type of mindfulness can help an individual better filter out “noise” and focus in on the targeted practice (such as breath and body), added Kent.

“Therapeutic power relies heavily on the quality of that relationship [between therapist and patient],” said Gorfinkle. “Trust, confidence, and associated willingness to suspend skepticism and disbelief are key components of what Sigmund Freud called the transference. In this instance, the association of the caregiver with a benevolent figure in the person’s memory.”

“All this is to say that for nostalgic memories to take on beneficial effects, it helps to have a willing and trusting frame of mind,” he said.

Gorfinkle summarizes the keys to making the most of nostalgic memory:

  • Be in a safe, trusting, and collaborative setting.
  • Try to recall of memories that include vivid multi-sensory, somatic, and kinesthetic experiences (using the five senses).
  • Embed in a brief narrative or story that is easy to bring to mind.
  • Practice in a non-stressful setting before trying to put it to use under severe stress.