Your brain on nostalgia: first study shows neurons light up in meaningful places
12/10/2017

The poet WH Auden coined the word ‘topophilia’ in 1948 to describe the sense of belonging people experience when returning to an important place from their past.

Now, for the first time, scientists have recorded that nostalgic reaction in the brain using MRI scans.

Whether it is wandering through woodland where we once played as children, or paddling in the same seas as past summer holidays, going back to meaningful places sparks significant mental and emotional changes which boosts wellbeing, the research suggests.

The study by The National Trust and The University of Surreyshowed a far greater boost of activity in the amygdala - a key area for processing emotion - when volunteers were shown pictures of personal sites, compared to important objects.

Dr Andy Myers looking at brain scans

Dr Andy Myers looking at brain scans CREDIT: THE NATIONAL TRUST

It suggests, for example, that the place where a person gets married carries a far greater emotional importance than the ring they receive on the day, or photographs from the wedding.

"For the first time we have been able to prove the physical and emotional benefits of place, far beyond any research that has been done before,” said Dr Andy Myers, of Surrey University.

"MRI opens a window into the brain allowing us to explore automatic emotional responses, scientifically demonstrating a tangible link between people and places that is often difficult to verbally describe.

"With meaningful places generating a significant response in areas of the brain known to process emotion, it's exciting to understand how deep rooted this connection truly is."

Areas of the brain which process emotion were triggered when looking at pictures of meaningful places 

Areas of the brain which process emotion were triggered when looking at pictures of meaningful places 

The study involved 20 people who were asked to bring photographs of ten important objects and ten meaningful places to the lab, where their brains were scanned when looking at each.

Meaningful places not only triggered a far stronger response than common places in the amygdala, but also in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex which is responsible for activating positive emotions and memories.  There was also a boost in activity in the Parahippocampal

Place Area, a part of the brain linked to feelings of self.

A separate survey involving 2,000 people was also carried out to find out how important places were.

Two thirds of those surveyed said their special place makes them feel calm and provided an escape from everyday life while almost half said it helped them to re-evaluate stress and worries.

Volunteers were asked to look at images of common and meaningful places while their brains were scanned 

Nine out 10 people said they would be upset if their meaningful place was lost.

Nino Strachey, Head of Research and Specialist Advice for The National Trust, said: "The National Trust exists because our forward thinking founder Octavia Hill intrinsically knew the importance of places for people. Now, 122 years later, science has proven her mission is still as relevant and important today.

"This research confirms places we love not only shape who we are, but offer deep physical and psychological benefits making it even more vital that we look after them for future generations.

"For many people, the strength of their connection to a place means they have a strong desire to protect it. This desire echoes the work the National Trust does, looking after special places for the nation, supported by our volunteers and five million members."


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