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How Nostalgia Fuels Creativity

Looking back may help you look forward.

How Nostalgia Fuels Creativity
[Top Photo: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker]

Nostalgia makes us crave the past. It brings back fond memories of family road trips to the Grand Canyon, a crush at summer camp, hanging out with high school friends—the good old days. It seems counterintuitive, then, that such a backward-looking emotion would inspire original ideas, but that’s exactly what new research has found. It turns out that nostalgia may actually make people more open to new experiences, and this effect can boost creativity.

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Weirdly, nostalgia used to have a bad reputation—psychologists interpreted it as people avoiding the present, and it was even classified as a psychiatric disorder at one point. But recent research has shown that nostalgia can have positive effects, like making people more optimistic about the future and more willing to set new goals. Psychologists from the University of Southampton wanted to see if nostalgia benefits another personality trait, creativity—a paradox that few have considered. In a set of experiments published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Wijnand van Tilburg and his team tested nostalgia’s influence on creative writing.

Flickr user Greg Younger

For two of the experiments, the researchers asked 175 participants to conjure up a nostalgic memory, which they defined as a memory that triggers “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past” (they told the control group to think of an ordinary memory). Then they asked participants to write stories that either included a princess, a cat, and a race car, or started with the sentence “One cold winter evening, a man and a woman were alarmed by a sound coming from a nearby house.” When these stories were evaluated, people who reminisced nostalgically scored higher on linguistic creativity than those who recalled ordinary memories.

But van Tilburg wanted to make sure that nostalgia directly stimulates creativity—that it’s not just about people feeling good when they think of happy memories (a lot of research has shown that positive emotions can boost creativity). So he and his team set up another creative writing test, where 106 participants considered either a nostalgic memory or a time when they had a stroke of good luck (such as finding money on the ground), and then wrote stories. Again, the researchers found that the nostalgic participants produced more creative prose compared with people who recalled a positive memory.

Flickr user Jeff Horsager

It’s not totally clear why nostalgia would nurture creativity, but van Tilburg has a theory. There’s already a well-established connection between openness to new experiences and creativity. “One of the strongest personality traits that predicts creativity is openness,” van Tilburg says. “People who are very open to novelty are more likely to, say, play around with new ideas or create connections between things where others would not.” Nostalgic memories may give people a sense of belonging, meaning, and security that opens them up to future experiences, and that openness encourages creativity.

In the study, he tested this connection by asking 62 participants to self-evaluate for statements like “I see myself as someone who is curious about many different things.” He found that nostalgia made people see themselves as both more open and creative. Perhaps not the strongest evidence for his theory, but it could suggest that openness plays a part in nostalgia’s effect.

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Flickr user That Hartford Guy

University of Connecticut educational psychologist Jonathan Plucker says that though it’s unexpected, it makes sense that nostalgia would heighten creativity. He says that nostalgia may help people access more information in their brain, and this may provide more material for creativity—specifically, it gives them information that’s very different than what they’re thinking about now. Creative ideas often happen when people combine two dissimilar concepts, and that’s the same line of thought nostalgia inspires: It makes us contemplate past experiences in the context of today.

Nostalgia in particular might be good at this because of the way our minds process sentimental memories. “The warm, fuzzy feelings we get from nostalgia may actually make it easier for us to use that older information,” Plucker says. “And if nostalgia is just a very efficient way of getting disparate concepts, then I would absolutely expect it to lead to more creativity.” Openness to experience could add to this as well. Plucker explains that too much information can straightjacket the mind and inhibit creativity, so if nostalgia opens people up, it would counteract this negative effect. (Van Tilburg says this idea is consistent with their findings, though they didn’t test for it in the study.)

While a little bit of reminiscing might inspire people, constantly living in the past probably won’t help. “We all like to wax nostalgic, but there are some people who live in a different era,” Plucker says. “It works for them, but I’m not sure it works for their creativity.” So if you’re looking for a muse, it might not be a bad idea to dig into your past. Just make sure you don’t get stuck there.

About the author

Annie Sneed is a San Francisco-based science journalist. She writes stories on topics ranging from beer microbiology to infectious diseases to the science of design for Fast Company, Wired, and Scientific American.

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