Neuroscience of Nostalgia

Do you remember that scene in Ratatouille when the evil food critic, Anton Ego, tries Remy’s food for the first time? He immediately flashes back to his childhood and the instant comfort of his mother’s food. One of the most heartwarming scenes of the whole movie can be explained with some really cool science.

Classical Conditioning…. Classic

Pavlov’s dogs can tell you, classical conditioning works. When researching dog’s digestive, Pavlov discovered that, after a few pairings of food to a bell, dogs would salivate when hearing the bell without needing to see the food. This prompted a whole slew of experiments focusing on pairing to seemingly useless stimuli (and has also created some funny pranks:

This theory helps explain the first step into understanding how food can bring upon overwhelming joy and nostalgia. For example in the gif shown above, Anton Ego, the harsh food critic, has been classically conditioned by this food to think of his childhood. In this case, the food, which to some is just another dish, is paired with memories of his mother’s cooking. This association between his mother’s food and Remy’s food instantly makes Ego love this dish.

Let’s dive a little deeper now.

When you taste something, a whole slew of networks are activated. With taste closely linked to sense of smell, previous research focused on the connection between the olfactory bulb and the amygdala. Dr. David Zald and Dr. Jose Pardo of the University of Minnesota investigated the effects of aromas on emotion and the neural connections between the olfactory bulb and the amygdala. By measuring cerebral blood flow (rCBF), Zald and Pardo found significant increases in amygdala activation when smelling an aversive odor. This study also found a correlation between perceived aversiveness of the aroma and rCBF. Clearly, odors have the ability to arouse emotional responses even beyond our consciousness.

But how does it connect to good emotions?

The primary olfactory cortex sends projections directly to the amgydala-hippocampal complex thus easily linking aroma and food to memories.

Scientific American reports how smells are incredibly powerful given their ability to bypass recognition systems of the smell and immediately trigger memories of the smell before we’re able to even name the smell. The olfactory cortex is also strongly associated with the limbic system as well as our friend, the amygdala. Research by Swedish scientist Johan Willander and Maria Larsson of Stockholm University suggests that aromas provoke more vivid episodic memories that just verbal cues.

So, Anton Ego there you have it. Your revolutionary discovery of a rat-chef’s cooking that tastes like your mother’s cooking has a (kind of) simple but very cool biological and psychological explanation.

Baker, A. (2014, December 23). It’s Beginning to Smell a Lot Like Christmas: The Neuroscience of Our Nostalgia. Retrieved from

Willander, J., & Larsson, M. (2007). Olfaction and emotion: The case of autobiographical memory. Memory and Cognition, 35(7), 1659-1663. doi:10.3758/BF03193499

Zald, D. H., & Pardo, J. V. (1997). Emotion, olfaction, and the human amygdala: amygdala activation during aversive olfactory stimulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 94(8), 4119–4124.


featured image:

Olfactory and amygdala image (…2.0..0.78.962.15……1….1..gws-wiz-img…….0j0i8i30.zOQtQvVSQX8#imgrc=ymnQsGaOE-dusM

Anton Ego gif (

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