Nostalgic Cookies: The Psychology of Loneliness and the Neuroscience of Reunion

David Krueger MD

Proust smelled a cookie and after tens of thousands of words still couldn’t stop remembering. 

My Dad invented his nostalgia while in the army shoveling coal all day on Christmas, 1943, in Kodiak, Alaska.   In his homesickness, he recalled earlier times, old friends, holiday gatherings.  Family togetherness was my Dad’s cookie.  For him, nostalgia was a constant companion, a composition impersonating memory, with its sepia glow replacing the harsh light and sharp edges of the original reality, certainly better than the one at hand.  At the time, I appreciated nostalgia’s complexity; later I would learn of its ubiquity. 

Nostalgia remembers things not as they were, but as we wished them to be.  Airbrushed memories backlit by idealization.  Nostalgia recalls the ideal rather than the real.  Has anyone gotten worse in high school and college sports as the years go on?  Or become less popular in memory replays?  (I’m very close to being all state in basketball twice in one season.  Probably by next year.  And that was the season—as best I recall—that we were undefeated). 

We remember our past as it was, and also as it would have been, as nostalgia is a revisionist of history. 

Marketing taps into nostalgic experiences.  It’s easier and faster to associate a product with idealized memories than to create a new product identity.  A nostalgic trigger is coupled with new information.  Arnold Palmer and that old tractor—two classics—preserved by one particular motor oil.

What put you in a mood to watch an old movie, or an old episode of Cheers or Friends?  Are there cues or triggers to prompt purchase of a piece of candy like you ate in childhood? 

A consortium of neuroscientists examined situations that lead people to prefer nostalgic products—those that remind them of the past—over contemporary ones.  They found that the key to preferring nostalgic items is the need to belong, to feel socially connected—especially prompted by situations of isolation or loneliness.  In one study, participants excluded from a game felt a heightened need to belong, and this need was “cured” by eating a “nostalgic cookie”—a brand that had been popular in the past. 

Nostalgia counters feelings of loneliness by providing a link between our past and present to create a sense of continuity.  Nostalgia plays increasing significance in older age as elderly adults more vulnerable to social isolation and disconnection use nostalgia to overcome feelings of loneliness.  Nostalgia’s fictive past provides a hopeful future.

The pile of coal that my young, healthy, almost indefatigable Dad shoveled over six decades ago on that cold, lonely Christmas day cast a long shadow, inhabited by his nostalgic musings and future hopes.  Perhaps even I was conceived there.

Nostalgia bias is one of the over two dozen money mistakes and financial fallacies I address in Your New Money Story®: Roadmap for Money Mastery, a seminar Series on five CDs + Workbook.