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The science of nostalgia: Why we're returning to the albums we loved as teens

A woman lies on the floor listening to old CDs
(Image credit: JLPH/Getty Images)

There’s no denying it: right now, you’re probably feeling more stressed than ever. The fear and panic of living through a global pandemic combined with the loneliness of lockdown is causing a maelstrom of emotions. At the same time, your inability to access your usual ways of blowing off steam (going out, drinking, exercising) is likely to be increasing the pressure. 

For a lot of us, that has meant an increased reliance on things that are familiar to bring us comfort. If you’ve found yourself retreating to the nostalgic safety of the records that lulled you throughout your adolescence rather than seeking out new music, you likely aren’t alone.

Publicly, many of us are reminiscing about the music we grew up with. A recent tweet, with a photo of a CD Walkman sticking out of a denim jacket pocket read: “First band u think of when u see this?” Clearly aimed at an audience who will actually know what a Walkman is when they see it, the answers are fairly predictable: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Glassjaw, Avril Lavigne, At The Drive-In, Linkin Park. Largely shared by alternative millennials nearing (or in) their 30s, the response and answers say less than the desire to share in that nostalgia.

A not dissimilar tweet that elicited near-identical responses asked people to share five artists they listened to in high school that they still listen to today, and the response to both points to the same conclusion: that we are all thinking about, and leaning on, the albums that first made us music fans. 

It’s not surprising – even in more typical times, our interests are often tethered to our relative pasts, whatever that means for you. Our tastes were cemented in adolescence, when our emotions were at their most raw and our personalities their most malleable. 

No matter your efforts to listen to new music, and no matter how much you may connect with it, in all likelihood it’s those early albums that still strike the most meaningful chord.

But why? A piece by Mark Joseph Stern in Slate in 2014 attempted to answer that question. Speaking to several experts Stern came to the conclusion that: “The nostalgia that accompanies our favourite songs isn’t just a fleeting recollection of earlier times; it’s a neurological wormhole that gives us a glimpse into the years when our brains leapt with joy at the music that’s come to define us.” 

A writer whom Stern spoke to, Daniel Levitan, author of This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession, posited that it’s also likely because the music you like as a teenager was the first music you discovered all on your own, meaning that it “melds the music to our sense of identity”.

I spoke to Diana Omigie, a lecturer at Goldsmiths with a PhD in neuroscience who researches the neurology of music-induced emotions. She told me that, firstly, our teenage years are a time of “intense developmental change”. Changes in our hormones bring on more intense feelings generally, while changes in the brain impact our decision making, social interaction, and emotion regulation. 

Crucially, during this time, we’re likely to listen to a lot of music, for two reasons: “The emotionality of music may offer a reliable companion as we navigate our own emotional rollercoasters” says Omigie, while "having clear musical preferences is a way of forming our identity and showcasing it to others.”

Our early teens are often when we discover the music we love, but it’s also when we’re likely to listen to music socially in a way we don’t as adults. While timing plays a big role, due to the reasons listed above, exposure does too. “If we, for whatever reason, begin to expose ourselves more to a specific musical style or genre, we tend to increase our capacity to enjoy that music,” says Omigie. That’s why, especially in alternative music, our tastes might not necessarily be allied with only one band or artist in adolescence, but in one genre, making it easier to get into new, say, emo, or metal, or hip-hop music in our adulthood than a different genre.

Now more than ever, chances are that when you need a dopamine boost or something to soothe you while being stuck inside all day, you’ll turn to old favourites. Omigie says that that’s completely normal in stressful times: “The reminiscence bump refers to the fact that we tend to love the music we heard in our late teens. This is probably because we are listening a lot to very specific styles of music and we are having very strong hormone-mediated emotional responses to them,” she says, adding that nostalgia is a common reason for listening to music generally. “The strong sense of identity we began to form in our teenage years may be a reminder of who we are with respect to values, needs, wants.” 

Right now, it’s important to not deny yourself the small things that bring you joy while you’re stuck at home – whether that’s food, connection, or nostalgia. Dipping into old favourites isn’t a sign of regression, but a totally normal response to stress – it makes perfect sense that the thing that brings you comfort is often the thing that first resonated most strongly with you. 

Whether it’s Nirvana or My Chemical Romance, indulge away: nothing will ever make you feel like the first time you heard it again, and that’s OK.