We Asked A Psychology Professor About Why Unlocking Core Memories Feels Deeply Satisfying

unlock core memories psychology nostalgia

Have you ever had a memory of something from your past just snap back into your brain like a bolt of lightning? A memory unlocked from some ancient tomb in the recesses of your cavernous brain?

You’re getting on with your life, minding your own God damn business, and then suddenly BAM. You’re smacked upside the head with urgent memories about something you haven’t thought about in years. We all experienced it with the family spew bowl, so there’s gotta be more, right? Introducing our new series, Memory Unlocked, which is about exactly this phenomenon.

We’re going to explore niche moments in our collective consciousness that we haven’t thought about in forever. Maybe it’s the smell of a certain perfume — hello J.Lo‘s ‘Glow’ and Davidoff Cool Water — or the first energy drink that ever came to Australian shelves. We’re going to dive into as much of these as possible.

And if you’ve got hyper-niche things you’ve come across that has pried open some vault of memories you thought you’d forgotten — let us know! Give us a yell, send us a message or flick us an email and we can dig around and see what we can find out about it. Or at least wax lyrical about it for a bit.

Before we delve into any unlocked memories, we thought we’d have a chat with a psychology expert. We wanted to learn more about the power of memories and how something as simple as a photo, a logo or a smell can evoke such a strong brain reaction from us.

Penny Van Bergen is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at Macquarie University. She told us memories are the main driver for the bittersweet longing for the past — which we all know as nostalgia.

“Nostalgia is often described as emotional and bittersweet and it’s memories that are emotional or personally salient in some way that makes us most nostalgic,” she said.

“Even the classic family spew bowl is reminding us of our families and our childhood.

“There is a sweetness in that the memories are enjoyable — at least in retrospect — and they tell us something about ourselves and our lives. Yet there is also conflicting emotion because we know that we can’t revisit the same time of life again.”

Penny said memory can be encoded in our brains in heaps of different ways. That’s why seeing something as simple as a logo or smelling a particular scent can unlock a core memory like a bolt of lightning.

“While we are often concerned with the meaning of what we recall, we can also encode sensory details — how something looked or smelled or tasted,” she said.

“If we are exposed to that same sensory information again, it reactivates the memory.

“To give an example, when I was a student at UNSW I worked in one of the food halls. After my shift, I grabbed a bottle of Ribena to try. As soon as I had the first sip I knew I’d had it before, way back in childhood. It was the sensory memory that I recognised.”

I don’t know about you but it feels like I’ve experienced more moments of being whacked in the face by core memories over these last couple of (arguably very fucking trying) years.

Memories and nostalgia are often something we use to socialise. Penny said shared experiences (even strange or odd ones) become valuable because we use them to connect with other people.

So in a time where we’ve been physically disconnected from each other because of lockdowns and border closures, we’ve been more likely to seek out connection through revisiting moments in our lives that feel simpler or we look back on fondly.

“Nostalgia often comes with a sense of what memory researchers call redemption: where difficult or challenging experiences are remembered in a more positive way after the fact,” Penny said.

“When we look back 50 years from now, we might reflect on those challenges by remembering not just the difficulties or anxieties or boredom but also our own personal growth, or lessons we learned and so on. It doesn’t change the negative experience itself, but it means we are adding an evaluative layer and reflecting more on what it means for us in a broader sense.”

Maybe in the future, we’ll all look back on the 2020-2022 years and feel a sense of fondness for the shared generational experience of enduring all of this.

Or at least think “wow what the fuck remember when we all got really into that word game with all the squares and a dog that determined how much we’d get done each day?”. And then we’ll start the core memory unlocking cycle all over again.