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The Nostalgia Series Part III: Dr Tom Mercer – The Psychology of Nostalgia

July 29, 2021 @ 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm


Introducing the Nostalgia Series


Nostalgia is a contentious issue. Whilst for some it is a harmless, helpful, rose-tinted view of the past, it has also been viewed critically, as a form of regressive, reactionary and sentimental escapism. Yet there is a steadily increasing body of work that reassesses nostalgia in a more positive, active and empowering light. Through this research network series, we seek to gain a greater understanding of nostalgia, and its impact on museums, regional and local history,lifelong learning and communities.

The Talk: Smell, Autobiographical Memory and Nostalgia

Nostalgia, defined by Pearsall (1998) as a “sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past”, can be bittersweet and may elicit negative feelings like yearning. However, current psychological research emphasises the positive aspects of nostalgia for personally experienced events, including increased feelings of optimism, positivity, self-esteem, and self-continuity.

Nostalgia can also be understood as a phenomenon of autobiographical memory, where significant events from our lives can be re-experienced through a form of “mental time travel”. Psychological research into autobiographical memory can therefore offer us important insights into nostalgia, and studies have shown that some cues – like smells – may be particularly effective at helping us to reminisce about the past. Indeed, psychological research into the Proust phenomenon confirms that certain smells can unlock vivid memories from childhood – memories that may otherwise be obscured by childhood amnesia.

This talk discusses two recent studies exploring the connection between childhood memory, smell and location, including the “Snidge Scrumpin’” project that investigated the Proust phenomenon in the Black Country. This found that certain smells, like Teddy Grays herbal tablets – hard-boiled sweets made in Dudley – elicited higher quality memories in those who grew up in the Black Country than those who grew up elsewhere. Typically, the memories recalled in response to smells were also positive, suggesting that odours offer a unique way of remembering pleasant events from our distant past in a manner that may be beneficial. Finally, family and familial locations had an important place within these memories, which is a common characteristic of nostalgia.

The Speaker:

Dr Tom Mercer is a Senior Lecturer and cognitive psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton. Tom is one of the coordinators of the Applied Cognition and Individual Differences research group and his main research interest is forgetting. Tom’s research projects typically use the experimental method to examine factors responsible for the loss of memory. Much of this research examines memory for non-verbal, sensory information.


Black Country Studies Centre
01902 322561


Online – Zoom