Retro Analysis: The Science of Nostalgia

JuliScalzi/iStock via Getty Images
JuliScalzi/iStock via Getty Images

Last August, the Fox television network took a cue from its 1990 programming line-up and debuted BH90210, a meta-throwback series starring the original cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 playing themselves in a revamp of the 1990-2000 teen soap hit. A Russian nesting doll of a show, the 90210 reboot appeared to be precision-engineered to stoke the nostalgic emotions of its fans, who were teens and young adults when it aired and were now primed for some comfort television. The premiere of BH90210 drew 6.1 million viewers, a record for an original summer series in 2019.

The 90210 reboot was just the latest attempt to monetize memory in popular culture. In 2019 alone, shows like Cobra Kai, Veronica Mars, Will and Grace, and The Conners have joined films like Rambo: Last Blood, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a live-action Lion King, and another Terminator in recalling stories and characters that first resonated 15 to 40 years before. Retrospective series like The Toys That Made Us take an exhaustive inventory of the plastic that populated store shelves in the 1980s and 1990s. Retro consoles like the NES Classic are gift-wrapped and doled out along with retro pop music compilations. One of the few non-sequel or remake movie hits of 2018 was Bohemian Rhapsody, an original film that nonetheless traded in on the cultural currency of Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991.

Nostalgia is so pervasive that it could practically introduce a unit of measurement—Jason Priestley leaning into a locker might provoke a five, while Ralph Macchio in a karate gi could be an eight. Entertainment seems primed to appeal to children—not actual kids facing adolescence, but those lurking inside the minds of adults. Increasingly, researchers are trying to better understand why nostalgia seems to be having a moment and how these exposures affect us neurologically. It turns out that dwelling on the past may be helping us to contextualize the present and prepare for the future.

 

Picture this: It’s late at night. You are out of college but have not yet embarked on a definitive career path. Bills are piled up on the table, a monument to adult responsibilities. Stress, anxiety, and student loans occupy your thoughts. On a social media page, you spot an advertisement for an old television show you liked. That brings you to YouTube, which has videos of Saturday morning cartoons you remember. For the next few hours, you drift from one clip to the next, happily regressing to a time when obligations were few and far between.

That’s nostalgia: a bittersweet longing or yearning for one's past. (Its counterpart, historical nostalgia, is having an affection for a different era, one you might not actually have lived through.) While that DuckTales episode might make you smile, it’s not so much the adventures of Scrooge McDuck and his nephews as the personal memories it conjures that bring you to a relaxed state.

“Having a nostalgic episode means you’re going to feel good, calm, at peace,” says Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. “You stop feeling anxious. Your stress levels drop. You get a warm, soft, fuzzy feeling. Your brain is reviving old memories when you were a kid watching a show and smelling chocolate chip cookies baking in the kitchen.”

According to Batcho, this attraction to the past is somewhat paradoxical. We are a forward-looking and future-driven culture, obsessed with the latest technology. So why get hung up on history? It could be because we’re accelerating too quickly. Smart phones get more sophisticated every year. Things change so fast that returning to a static frame of mind offers comfort. “People want to go back to the feelings they had when they believed life was better,” Batcho tells Mental Floss. “It triggers associational memories. You remember aspects of life from back when you first watched a show.” A movie may be worse than you remember, but it remains tethered to a time when you enjoyed an uncomplicated state of mind and a life largely free of commitments.

That predictability is key. A memory can become distorted, and details could get muddled, but a happy recollection is going to be the same every time. Fundamentally positive memories are often stripped of negativity. “It’s comforting because you’re the master of that memory,” Batcho says. “You know your own lived-in past perfectly, but you have no idea what the future is going to be.”

When you view an old television show or movie or listen to favorite music, it’s often as a coping mechanism. The desire for nostalgia tends to spike during and proceeding transformative life events—a marriage, a job, a death—because it offers stability and a peaceful remembrance of a time when life was not so stressful. That’s why sources of nostalgia are identified with childhood and why it’s often 10 to 20 years before those pangs of memory kick in. By that time, you’ve experienced a milestone in your life that might compel you to look back.

MarkPiovesan/iStock via Getty Images

“Nostalgia helps remind you who you are,” Batcho says. “It provides a comparison of yourself with yourself. Who were you back then? Who are you now? Watching something can trigger what you were thinking and feeling back then. Nostalgia allows us to monitor and keep track of our identities.”

 

Context and comfort make nostalgia a generally agreeable and positive emotion, but it wasn’t always thought of that way. In the 17th century, Swiss physician Johannes Hoffer defined nostalgia as a mental disorder, one suffered by Swiss soldiers dispatched to foreign territories who were homesick and dwelled on the details of their old lives. When it invites negative thoughts, then nostalgia can become bittersweet. More often, however, it’s literally rewarding.

Several years ago, Mauricio Delgado, researcher at Rutgers University who studies reward processing in the brain, returned to his former university to give an alumni talk. Walking the campus for the first time since graduating, Delgado found himself processing a flood of positive memories. He left feeling good about his visit, and he began to wonder what nostalgia would look like if it could be visualized neurologically.

“I thought there could be some reward value to this,” Delgado tells Mental Floss. “I wondered if it evoked similar processes in the brain.”

With his team, Delgado published a study in the journal Neuron in 2014 that provided some tangible and fascinating evidence of how we process fond recollections. After tasking his subjects with recalling positive life experiences—a vacation to Disney World, for example—Delgado observed their brains' activity through a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The subject would hit a button when they began to recall the memory, then hit it again when they stopped. They would also summon memories they felt neutral about—grabbing groceries or shopping for shoes.

As they evoked a positive memory, the brains of his subjects lit up in a very specific way. “They tended to recruit brain systems involved in reward,” Delgado says. The brain’s processing of a reward happens in the striatum and prefrontal cortex, areas rich in dopamine receptors and active when people are enthusiastic about receiving good news or earning psychologically or tangibly positive assets like food or money. Nostalgia and those mental visits to the past offered neurochemical benefits not unlike a winning lotto ticket or receiving a “like” on Instagram.

In another study, Delgado had subjects exposed to stress, then recall a positive memory. The act of recollection dampened the cortisol response, leading to a stress-alleviating effect.

While these studies were not targeted to pop culture, one can glimpse the net result. Popular media is a conduit for pleasant memories, and pleasant memories produce positive neurological changes. “It’s reminiscing, and nostalgia is more like a television show from a past era,” Delgado says. “But nostalgia is what connects them.” In another fMRI study, some subjects passed on an opportunity for a financial reward for a neutral memory in order to continue drawing positive memories from the past. Making use of their internal time machine and the soothing state it offered was more valuable to them than money.

 

Nostalgia has been recognized by name since Hoffer’s time, but it seems as though the past several years have seen an popular emphasis on recalling content to provoke that reward response. The 1970s were not bountiful with reboots of I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, or other material from the 1950s. What makes the 21st century unique in this regard? Why is a show's cancellation no longer a guarantee that it will never return?

jakkapan21/iStock via Getty Images

According to David Gerber, a history professor emeritus at the University of Buffalo, we might be experiencing an uptick in nostalgia owing to the times we live in. “We’re passing through a period of very profound change,” Gerber says. “It’s not simply generational but global. There’s an industrial revolution from new information, electronic technology, and the globalization of markets. We’re passing through an era of profound concern for the planet.” Just as personal milestones can invoke personal nostalgia, political and environmental stresses can prompt collective nostalgia. We want to return to a simpler time and place because the one we currently occupy is one of upheaval.

Gerber also doesn’t discount the influence of mass media on our perceptions of time. “Media purposefully gives generations their own identities—Baby Boomers, Generation X," he says. These assigned categories make it easier to feel out of time when a new generation—like Millennials—comes along to remind an older population that their hairstyles, music, and fashion are no longer current, making them hyperconscious of the past they left behind.

Media makes it hard to forget: It’s easy to examine your feelings about Woodstock when hundreds of articles celebrating its 50th anniversary abound. With age encroaching, a desire to retrieve those memories grows. “It’s an emotional cushion for dealing with change,” Gerber says.

Nostalgia also relies heavily on social media, where collective recollections can be easily summoned by posting an old advertisement for a fondly remembered toy, game, or Starter jacket. “Now that more and more people don’t live near friends and relatives, it’s become a way to keep close to someone at a distance,” Batcho says. Nostalgia can also mend relationships, if one party has positive connotations with something that used to be shared as a couple. That Sopranos binge with an ex could stir feelings of forgotten emotion. “Nostalgic memories can remind you that you love a person,” she says.

While nostalgia often separates generations, it can also bring them closer together. “Part of what we see happening is that it allows for intergenerational connections,” Batcho says. She cites the fact that her adult son was in college and wondering which career path to pursue when he remembered how often his mother watched St. Elsewhere, the NBC television series set in a hospital that aired from 1982 to 1988. “He felt this kind of warm and fuzzy feeling about hospitals and realized it came from watching me watch the show,” Batcho says. “It’s like secondhand nostalgia.” Her son became a doctor—a decision he based in part on those memories.

 

Nostalgia often kicks in when enough time has passed to experience a major life event, which usually takes years from the time life consisted of cereal and Lunchables and when you need to think about a wedding. (Or a divorce.) But everyone’s relationship to the past is relative. Breaking Bad went off the air in 2013. In October, a follow-up film, El Camino, picks up where the series left off. Is that nostalgia? If you experienced a major milestone in the six years in between, maybe.

Batcho notes that nostalgia tends to drop off as we get older. In adulthood, we cope with the crises of the present by remembering the past. In middle age and into our third acts, we’re busy with an independent life, kids, and a career. Later, we realize there’s more time behind us than in front of us, and our perspective changes again. Nostalgia at this late stage can once again grow bittersweet. We recall a past we cannot reproduce.

There’s one further drawback to nostalgia. Like any pleasant stimulus, we can experience too much of it and become desensitized. After scoring record ratings for its debut, BH90210 kept dropping from week to week, eventually losing 60 percent of its viewers for its next-to-last episode. There seems to be a limited desire to check back in with Beverly Hills High.

“There is a saturation point,” Batcho says. “Once you satiate your need for nostalgia, it loses its value. Like a fine wine, it’s best enjoyed in appropriate amounts. It’s supposed to be a visit.”

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

15 Fascinating Facts About Fatbergs

A piece of fatberg from the sewer systems under London's Whitechapel neighborhood on display at the Museum of London. And if you think this piece is gross, you should have seen the fatberg when it was in the sewer.
A piece of fatberg from the sewer systems under London's Whitechapel neighborhood on display at the Museum of London. And if you think this piece is gross, you should have seen the fatberg when it was in the sewer.

Lurking in the sewer systems under your feet could be a threat so horrifying, so disgusting, that the mere mention of it sends a shiver down the spines of sanitation specialists everywhere: Fatbergs, mounds of grease capable of growing to massive proportions and blocking the flow of sewage with expensive—and potentially disastrous—consequences. Here’s what you need to know about fatbergs, and how you can help prevent them.

1. The word fatberg was coined in 2008.

It takes inspiration from the word iceberg, and first appeared in print in a story referencing photos of pollution on a beach in the January 22, 2008 edition of the Birmingham Post: “particularly memorable are the large, rock-like lumps of cooking fat [Alistair] Grant calls ‘fatbergs,’” the paper said. The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015.

2. Fatbergs are made of fats, oils, and greases, or FOG.

“Fatbergs form from a buildup of fats, oils, and greases—called FOG for short—in the sewer pipes,” says Kimberly Worsham, founder of FLUSH (Facilitated Learning for Universal Sanitation and Hygiene), a company that, through edutainment events and advisory consulting, aims to change how the world perceives and does sanitation work. “This can include soap scum, dairy dregs, congealed fat from food, industrial grease, etc.”

Lots of the grease comes from restaurants whose sinks aren’t equipped with grease traps, but individual households contribute to fatbergs, too. “Your Thanksgiving food scraps are part of the next fatberg,” Worsham tells Mental Floss by email. “There’s a lot of fat in our holiday meals that are prime for fatberg parties in the sewers—all because we’re lazy and don’t want to open the trash bin.”

All that FOG, along with human waste, settles into crevices in the sewer pipes. The fat interacts with calcium—which can either come from concrete pipes or water in the system that has flowed over concrete—and undergoes the process of saponification, or turning into soap. “After a while, more FOG bits build up together on the sides of the pipes, creating congestion in the sewers,” Worsham says.

3. Fatbergs are as old as sewers.

“Fatbergs have been around since as long as humans had sewers—at least since the Roman Empire had its Cloaca Maxima,” Worsham says. “We have evidence that Roman slaves would have to go pull out the stuck fatty bits from the sewers. Fatbergs were actually the reason a guy developed the grease trap in the 1880s because he was rightfully sure that fat would destroy the sewer systems eventually. But most fatbergs were relatively small compared to the ones we see nowadays—the magnitude has just increased a ton in the last decade or two.”

4. We have wet wipes to blame for today’s fatbergs.

Wet wipes are a scourge upon the world’s sewer systems. Despite what their packaging claims, wet wipes are not flushable—and doing so has contributed to fatbergs in a big way. “We started seeing the instances of these larger and sometimes mega fatbergs popping up in big cities like London around the time the popularity of adults using wet wipes really started to boom, which was about a decade ago,” Worsham says. She describes wet wipes as “absorbent cotton bastards” that, unlike toilet paper, don’t dissolve in water but instead are great at grabbing grease. “Imagine a bunch of fat-soaked wet wipes in a sewer about 2 feet wide—they’re going to get together and clump up.” Because they don’t dissolve, wet wipes also wreak havoc on our waste treatment plants.

5. Weird things are found in fatbergs.

People put a lot of things in their toilets, so a wide range of stuff has turned up in fatbergs, including condoms, tampons, dental floss, syringes, drugs, and wet wipes. Bones and false teeth have also been found in fatbergs, as have a typewriter and a bowling ball. “I think the fact that they’ve found stuff like whole toilets and mop heads in fatbergs is pretty weird—it’s very meta,” Worsham says. “Those probably somehow fell through a manhole or something, maybe.”

The composition of fatbergs, along with their size and even color, vary largely, and depends on the community where it formed. “We’re still learning quite a lot about fatbergs, and really fatbergs are not homogenous in their contents at all!” Worsham says.

But there are still some insights we can glean from them—like whether there are a lot of restaurants in an area, for example. “Some things they do find in some of the fatbergs are concentrations of drugs in certain regions,” Worsham says. “There’s this story about the South Bank fatberg in London that had a lot of performance enhancement drugs in it—more than other drugs like cocaine and MDMA—and I recall people speculating was because that was connected to an area of London that has a lot of clubs and public places where the area has a fit culture.”

6. Fatbergs can take a while to form.

According to Worsham, how long a fatberg takes to form depends on things like the type and size of pipes and what, exactly, is going into those pipes. “In London, some of the bigger fatbergs that they’ve pulled out—those 130 tons or more—took probably about a decade to create,” she says. “But I’m sure in a lot of places it takes much less time, especially in places where the pipes are smaller, and people are more careless with dumping stuff into sewers.”

7. Fatbergs show up in sewer systems around the world.

In the United States, fatbergs have been found in Baltimore, Maryland; Charleston, South Carolina; New York City; and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Around the world, these massive mounds of fat and trash have plagued sewage systems in Canada, the UK, Singapore, and Australia. (A fatberg the size of a gas tanker truck, found in Melbourne in April 2020, is thought to have grown so big due to a toilet paper shortage brought on by COVID-19, which spurred people to buy more wet wipes.)

8. Fatbergs smell awful.

Worsham has never encountered a fatberg herself (“that could be either a good thing or a bad thing knowing me, I guess,” she says), but those who have likely wish they could forget the stench. John Love, a professor at the University of Exeter who was part of a group of scientists that performed a study on portions of a fatberg found in the sewage system in Sidmouth, England, told The New York Times that “It was my first time analyzing a fatberg, and when you smell it, you think this is going to be the last time because the smell was honking. It was awful to do, it smelled gross.” The Guardian described the smell as “a heady combination of rotting meat mixed with the odor of an unclean toilet,” while the BBC said it’s “a bit like vomit, with undertones of poo.”

9. Finding a fatberg can be a shock.

What’s it like to come upon a fatberg in a sewer? Charlie Ewart, a sewer worker in southwest England, found a 209-foot-long fatberg in Sidmouth when he went through a manhole in January 2019. He described his experience to The Guardian:

“I saw it and thought: ‘What on Earth?’ It was completely unexpected … It’s really eerie in that bit of the sewer and it does look like something out of a horror scene, all congealed and glossy and matted together with all kinds of things.”

10. Fatbergs can be massive.

It can be hard to comprehend just how big these masses of fat and debris can grow, so some comparisons can help helpful. According to Newsweek, fatbergs can reach 800 feet long, stand 6 feet tall, and weigh as much as four humpback whales. Other fatbergs in the UK have been as big as airplanes and double-decker buses and longer than the Leaning Tower of Pisa is tall. One fatberg found in the sewers under Liverpool weighed as much as 13 elephants.

11. It’s not easy—or cheap—to remove a fatberg.

Removing these giant masses clogging the sewers is no easy task. “My understanding is that they have to be removed really slowly, and with blunt force,” Worsham says. “You don’t want to break the sewer pipes by chiseling away with sharp stuff—that kind of defeats the purpose.”

Workers must don special suits to protect themselves against the contents of the fatbergs—which could potentially include things like needles—as well as noxious gases and fumes. Then, crews of workers use shovels and other blunt objects to chip away at the mass. “They’re often hard, so it takes a while,” Worsham says. “Think weeks, or maybe even months if it’s big enough.” The process is time-consuming and expensive: Cities spend millions of dollars a year fighting fatbergs. “Scientists are trying to figure out how to create bacteria that can eat up the fatbergs without needing to put people into the sewer to manually remove it,” Worsham says.

Once a fatberg is removed, “Places either study them to understand them, or they go into landfill[s],” Worsham says. “There are stories that in China, they scoop up the fatberg oils from sewers and crudely refine them to use at sidewalk food stalls as gutter oil … so there’s that.”

In 2018, scientists at the University of British Columbia developed a method for turning fatbergs into biofuel and implemented it in pilot testing programs, but there’s more work to be done in that area.

12. Fatbergs are dangerous.

As fascinating as fatbergs are, there’s no question that they’re bad news. “Fatbergs work like the clogging of a heart artery,” Worsham says. “If we don’t move them, they start to build up, and the sewer system has something like the equivalent of a heart attack.” With no way to get through the fatberg, the waste in the sewer backs up into your home and the surrounding environment, including waterways and wetlands.

“There’s still pathogenic poo in the fatbergs, too, on top of other wacky and hazardous things like needles,” Worsham says. “Once the fatbergs cause sewage spills, those pathogens become intermingled in our communities and surroundings, and we can get sick from that.”

Then there’s the fact that fatbergs are dangerous to the people removing them: “If you’re a sewer worker trying to clean up a fatberg, getting pricked by a sharp object in a fatberg has more personal and acute dangerousness to it—you don’t know what is in the needle, or who was using it, or why they were using it, or how,” she says.

13. A fatberg was put on display in London.

In 2017, workers discovered an 820-foot fatberg in the sewer system under London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, which took nine weeks to clear. A piece of that fatberg, which was nicknamed “The Beast” and “The Monster of Whitechapel,” went on display at the Museum of London in 2018. The exhibit was aptly called “Fatberg!” and featured a mannequin dressed in protective gear alongside the tools needed to get rid of a fatberg. The specimen itself was contained in a special sealed unit that was placed inside a display case.

“Displaying part of a fatberg has been on the museum’s wish list for a few years and when we heard about the Whitechapel fatberg—the biggest one ever found in the UK—we knew we had to act quickly to secure a sample,” curator Vyki Sparkes said in an interview on the museum’s website. “It’s grand, magnificent, fascinating, and disgusting. The perfect museum object!”

Flies hatched from the fatberg while it was on display; the specimen also changed color and sweated a bit. According to collections care manager Andy Holbrook, who is the only person to handle the fatberg outside of the display, and had to wear full protective gear while doing so, “The fatberg samples were lighter than they looked, it felt a little bit like pumice stone, but crumbly in texture. But Fatberg has evolved since it’s been on display.” When it was first acquired “it was waxy and wet,” but a year after its removal from the sewer, it was “much lighter, with a bone-like color and the texture has become like soap.”

These days, the fatberg is off display and in quarantine under Holbrook’s supervision. It’s the only item in the collection with a livecam (called the “Fatcam”), which you can watch here. The fatberg was air-dried to preserve it, but that hasn’t stopped it from changing—in fact, it’s developed a toxic aspergillus mold “in the form of visible yellow pustules,” according to the museum’s website.

14. Scientists are studying fatbergs.

There’s a ton we don’t know about fatbergs. “We don’t understand how to get rid of them cheaply, what happens to them over time and how they evolve, or all of the things they could potentially tell us about our communities,” Worsham says.

But science is on the case: In addition to performing “autopsies” on fatbergs, scientists have also performed molecular analysis on a fatberg, which revealed the presence of parasite eggs and bacteria like Campylobacter, E. coli, and Listeria, as well as antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Scientists have even analyzed the DNA of a fatberg. Worsham likens it to “a new kind of forensics study.”

15. You can help stop fatbergs.

Are you concerned about having sewage backing up into your home or business after reading this piece? There’s action you can take.

The No.1 thing commercial businesses can do to stop fatbergs is to install grease traps. “A lot of fatbergs in recent history have been located near restaurant districts, and restaurants dump their fats and oils down the drain. So, don’t do that, and that helps prevent fatbergs a lot,” Worsham says.

Individuals can do their part, too, by not throwing just anything in the toilet. “Our sewers are often used as trash bins, but they don’t work the same way. That means you need to not flush anything down the toilet that’s not coming directly out of your body, water, or isn’t legitimate toilet paper. Literally, nothing else can go down the toilet,” Worsham says. “And when you’re putting stuff down the drain, don’t dump coffee grounds, tea leaves, whole bits of foods and fats, or any of that stuff. You’d be surprised how things easily bind up fats and greases in the sewers. For instance, floss works almost like a lasso, binding up fats together that can contribute to larger fat stores.”

Finally, Worsham says, “please, never ever put wet wipes down the toilet. Personally, I’m a big bidet fan and I think that everyone should dump their wet wipes habit and start using bidets. They’re glorious.” If you’re interested in buying a bidet, we have a few recommendations here.