Deep vs Surface learning

As we’re now approaching exam season, this week’s post is looking at the best way to learn new information. Hopefully this will be helpful to those of you revising at the moment!

Consider these two scenarios, and have a think about which one describes your learning approach.

1. You need to learn about the theory of intergroup conflict in social psychology, so you get a textbook from the library written by a leading researcher in the field, read and try to memorise the relevant sections.

2. You need to learn about the localisation of memory in the brain. You find as much evidence for each type of memory you can, and try to make links with what you already know, to understand why it would make sense for that function to be in that area of the brain.

According to Marton & Säljö (1976), approach number 1 would be an example of surface learning – which is based on reproducing information in order to answer anticipated questions (a common revision strategy!). In contrast, approach number 2 is focused on understanding, not just memorising. This approach is therefore known as deep learning.

In their experiment, Marton & Säljö asked students to read an academic paper using one of these two approaches. They found that students using the deep learning approach understood more of the paper and were better at answering questions on it later.

The table below shows more examples of deep and surface learning – which approaches do you use in your revision? If you notice the left column applies to you then maybe consider trying some new strategies from the column on the right.


However, this is not to say that students only use one of these approaches when it comes to learning. Students are affected by factors in their learning environment and other influences, such as how much they already know on the topic (Nijhuis et al, 2005). Some students also combine both deep and surface learning to achieve the best outcomes in the time available – this is known as having a strategic approach (Entwistle et al, 2000).

I hope this has helped you when it comes to revising for your next exam or learning something new. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of thinking you just need to memorise the facts – you’ll learn much more effectively if you focus on understanding the topic, evaluating it, and linking new information with what you already know.


Entwistle, N., Tait, H. and McCune, V., 2000. Patterns of response to an approaches to studying inventory across contrasting groups and contexts. European Journal of Psychology of Education15(1), p.33.

Nijhuis, J.F., Segers, M.S. and Gijselaers, W.H., 2005. Influence of redesigning a learning environment on student perceptions and learning strategies. Learning environments research8(1), pp.67-93.

Marton, F. and Säljö, R., 1976. On qualitative differences in learning: I—Outcome and process. British journal of educational psychology46(1), pp.4-11.



Creativity – why does it come naturally for some, but others struggle to use their imagination? What are the best ways to encourage creativity  and how do you be more creative? These are just some of the questions I’ve got about creativity, and I’d love to know how to beat the creative block. Read more to see what I found out..


When thinking about why some people are more creative than others, it might be useful to start looking at which parts of the brain are involved in creative thinking. One study involved participants with lesions in different parts of their brain, and investigated their ability to generate original ideas (Shamay-Tsoory et al, 2011). They compared their performance in a creative thinking test which involved generating novel images, and thinking of new uses for objects. Researchers found that having a lesion in the right medial prefrontal cortex (see below) had impaired creative thinking, whilst participants who had a lesion in the left medial prefrontal cortex actually had enhanced creative ability. The researchers hypothesised that this result could be explained by language lateralisation – language is controlled by the left side of the brain, and could normally interfere with the creative process. Therefore, when this part of the brain is damaged, our creativity improves.


Another recent study has examined why some people are more creative than others (Beaty et al, 2018). They used fMRI imaging to scan the brains of participants whilst they took part in a creative problem solving task, and identified a network of structures which was used for generating creative ideas. The researchers then compared the strength of the connections between these areas in people who had low or high creativity scores, and found that the people who had the strongest connections between different brain structures came up with better ideas during the task.

However looking at brain structure isn’t enough, and would be oversimplifying the impact of our physical and social environments on our ability to be creative (Damasio, 2001). Damasio argued that in order to be creative, we must meet the following criteria:

  • the motivation to create
  • the courage to face scrutiny and criticism
  • extensive experience and expertise (e.g. to know what has been done before, what is original)
  • insight into your own mind, and the minds of others
  • the ability to generate and recall a variety of images
  • a large working memory capacity, to be able to hold these images in mind at the same time
  • the ability to make decisions, to choose which ideas to keep and which to discard

When trying to improve our creative performance, one study has examined the role of seeing examples in helping creativity and generating novel ideas (Kulkarni et al, 2012). Participants in a creativity task were either shown examples early, late, or repeatedly in the process, and their performance was compared with those who didn’t see any examples.  They found that seeing examples anywhere in the creative process reduced originality, and that participants who saw examples also produced fewer drawings. The authors hypothesised that this result could be because viewing examples raises the bar of what is an ‘acceptable idea’, so they spent more time refining current ideas as opposed to generating new ones. However, participants who saw examples early in the process were judged to have improved creativity, as measured by number of novel features of drawings and subjective ratings of performance.



Beaty, R.E., Kenett, Y.N., Christensen, A.P., Rosenberg, M.D., Benedek, M., Chen, Q., Fink, A., Qiu, J., Kwapil, T.R., Kane, M.J. and Silvia, P.J., 2018. Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, p.201713532.

Damasio, A.R., 2001. Some notes on brain, imagination and creativity. The origins of creativity, pp.59-68.

Kulkarni, C., Dow, S.P. and Klemmer, S.R., 2014. Early and repeated exposure to examples improves creative work. In Design thinking research (pp. 49-62). Springer International Publishing.

Shamay-Tsoory, S.G., Adler, N., Aharon-Peretz, J., Perry, D. and Mayseless, N., 2011. The origins of originality: the neural bases of creative thinking and originality. Neuropsychologia49(2), pp.178-185.

image reference:




Remarkable Women in Psychology

This week’s post is a special one in honour of International Women’s Day 2018. Whilst some of the most famous figures in psychology are men (think Freud, Jung, Milgram etc), this doesn’t mean that women haven’t made a massive contribution to the field. The work of female scientists should be celebrated, so I’ve picked 5 women who have made a real difference to the field of psychological research to profile below.

1. Mary Ainsworth


Born: 1913. Ohio, USA

Studied: University of Toronto

Most famous for: Devising the Strange Situation – a test to observe attachment type between an infant and their primary caregiver (to find out more about the Strange Situation read my blog post here). Her work makes up the cornerstone of attachment theory – that is the type of attachment an infant has to their primary caregiver (usually their mother). If an infant does not have secure attachment then it may result in emotional or behavioural problems later on in life.

2. Mamie Clark

mamie clark

Born: 1917. Arkansas, USA

Studied: Columbia University

Most famous for: Doing some of the first work into racial bias with young children in segregated America that went on to provide pivotal evidence in the United States Supreme Court case which ruled it was unconstitutional to have separate schools for white and black children. Her experiment used dolls of different skin tones and children were asked questions such as “show me the doll that looks bad” or “which doll would you like to play with?”. The experiment revealed a preference for the white doll, mimicking society at the time. It concluded that racial segregation caused psychological harm to children.

3. Anne Treisman


Born: 1935. Yorkshire, UK

Studied: University of Oxford

Most famous for: Developing Feature Integration Theory with Gelade in 1980. This states that the individual features of a stimulus (such as colour or shape) are processed simultaneously through an automatic process before object recognition occurs at a later stage. This process explains how we search for a target in a crowded field – if it has a distinctive feature like being a bright colour (e.g. a pink circle in a field of blue ones) then it seems to pop out automatically. However, processing takes longer if the target shares a feature with the distractors (imagine looking for a blue circle in a field of blue squares). In the first example processing happens automatically, whereas the second example requires more attention to find the target. This work has since gone on to form the basis of several new experiments in the field of cognitive psychology, and her paper with Gelade (Treisman & Gelade, 1980) has been cited over 100,000 times.

4. Elizabeth Loftus


Born: 1944. California, USA

Studied: Stanford University

Most famous for: Her work on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. In her well-known experiment, she showed participants a video of a car accident. She then asked half of them “How fast was the car going when it bumped into the other car?” and the other half “How fast was the car going when it smashed into the other car?”. The participants who were asked the second question were more likely to overestimate the speed the car was travelling. Her work in this field shows how careful interviewers must be when talking to eyewitnesses as leading questions can alter their perception of the event. She has gone on to advise courts in several famous cases, including that of OJ Simpson.

5. Dame Vicki Bruce


Born: 1953. Essex, England

Studied: University of Cambridge

Most famous for: Being a leader in the field of face recognition and eyewitness testimony. In 1986 she developed a Functional Model of Face Processing with Young (Bruce & Young, 1986) which states that there are 7 different codes that we use to process faces which, include expression, pictorial, and structural codes. The model explains how familiar faces are processed differently to unfamiliar ones, and why we have the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon, when we know we know someone’s name but can’t remember exactly what it is. She was awarded an OBE for services to psychology in 1997 and was made a Dame in 2015.



Were there any people profiled here that you hadn’t heard of before? It’s be really interesting to put this post together, but also frustrating at times – some female psychologists who I wanted to feature don’t have their own Wikipedia page, making it hard to find out their biographical information. This just goes to show that we should celebrate women in science! Please share, using the hashtag #internationalwomensday and if there’s anyone else you think I should have featured here please let me know in the comments below.



Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E. and Wall, S.N., 2015. Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.

Bruce, V. and Young, A., 1986. Understanding face recognition. British journal of psychology77(3), pp.305-327.

Loftus, E.F. and Palmer, J.C., 1996. Eyewitness testimony. In Introducing psychological research (pp. 305-309). Palgrave, London.

Treisman, A.M. and Gelade, G., 1980. A feature-integration theory of attention. Cognitive psychology12(1), pp.97-136.


Why do we forget?

I realised earlier today that whilst I’ve written several posts about memory, for example this one, about the different types of memory, the link between smell and memory, whether our memory is trustworthy, and about those with perfect memory syndrome, I’ve never actually written a post about the opposite – forgetting. Why is it that we often can’t remember something so simple as what we had to eat yesterday, or a piece of information we need to know for an exam? Read on to find out more..


One theory is the Trace Decay Theory of forgetting. This assumes that memories leave a trace in the brain, and if we don’t activate this trace (by thinking about the memory) then it fades, or decays. This theory involves our short term memory, which has a limited duration and can only hold onto information for around 30 seconds. However, it is actually pretty hard to test, meaning there isn’t much evidence to support it. It also doesn’t explain why people can remember things even though they haven’t thought about them for years, which is at odds with trace decay theory.

An alternative theory involving the short term memory is Displacement Theory. This theory is based on evidence which has shown the capacity of the short term memory to be between 5 and 9 items (Miller, 1956). Once new information enters our short term memory, other items in there are displaced. This has been illustrated by asking participants to remember a list of words. Results of experiments using this method have found that people are more likely to remember the words at the beginning and at the end, the ones in the middle have been ‘displaced’.


Interference Theory explains forgetting in terms of our long term memory. Have you ever typed in your old password and wondered why it wasn’t working? That’s an example of proactive interference – old knowledge interfering with what we know now. Or how about if you’ve broken your new phone and have to go back to using your old one, but keep pressing the wrong buttons? That’s retroactive interference – new knowledge interfering with what you used to know. Anderson (2003) explains interference as a failure of inhibition in the brain, whilst it might be useful to forget some things over time (e.g. what you had for dinner 3 weeks ago), there are other things which we need to remember, despite new learning. A single retrieval cue (such as sitting at your computer) can link to more than one memory (your old and new password), meaning the correct memory needs to be selected. However a problem with this mechanism means that as well as forgetting potentially distracting memories, problems with inhibiting other memories triggered by the same cue means that useful things are forgotten too.

The above theories assume that the memory has been forgotten because it no longer exists. But what if the problem isn’t with the memory itself, but the process of remembering known as retrieval? Retrieval failure happens when the memory is still contained in our long term memory, but we are unable to access it because certain cues are not there. These cues can be anything such as context about where you were when you learnt the information (external), or how you were feeling (internal). Goddon & Baddeley (1975) asked a group of divers to take part in a memory experiment. Half learnt a word list on land, and half underwater. Half of the group who learnt the list on land then had to recall the list on land, whilst the other half had to do this task underwater. The same happened to the participants in the underwater learning group. They found that participants who had to recall the words in the same setting as they learnt them in performed significantly better than those whose context had changed.

What about when forgetting is more serious? Amnesia is more severe than the types of forgetting we experience in day to day life, as it can involve forgetting large proportions of previous life events or information and is often caused by trauma to the brain. Perhaps the most famous case of amnesia was in Patient H.M., who had most of his hippocampus (structure in the centre of the brain which is thought to be responsible for long term memory) removed to cure his severe epilepsy. Whilst successful in reducing his seizures, he was left unable to retain any new information for more than a few minutes. If you’d like to read more about what H.M.’s case taught us about human memory, I’ve also written a post about that here.



Anderson, M.C., 2003. Rethinking interference theory: Executive control and the mechanisms of forgetting. Journal of memory and language49(4), pp.415-445.

Godden, D.R. and Baddeley, A.D., 1975. Context‐dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. British Journal of psychology66(3), pp.325-331.

Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.

Scoville WB, Milner B. J. 1957. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatry. 20:11–21


Why do we dream?

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we dream at night? From sweet dreams to recurring nightmares, our mind is rarely silent – regardless of whether we can really remember their content in the morning.

Sometimes, we find our dreams are linked to things going on in our lives right now, worries about future events or strong memories from the past. This therefore seems to suggest that dreams are in some way linked to our memory, but exactly how, no one seemed sure.

Recent research has investigated the role of dreams and REM sleep (the phase of deep sleep) in the consolidation of long term memory. Consolidation just means the process whereby our memories move from short term to long term storage. In our long term memory, memories are stored for recall. Rehearsal (thinking about) these long term memories briefly involves short term processing, and this rehearsal strengthens the storage of these memories. Dreams may play a part in this consolidation and rehearsal process.

To find out more about REM sleep and our sleep cycle then why not read my previous post here.

Photo by clownbusiness/Shutterstock, with additional illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

As I mentioned early, our dreams can have similarities to events which have taken place in our lives. Some research has focused on investigating the content of our dreams and found that the events which tend to be included in our dreams are ones which are rated as more emotional, although not more stressful, than those not incorporated (Malinoski & Horton, 2014). This suggests that REM sleep might help to process emotional memories. Further evidence to support this hypothesis is that levels of REM sleep are lower in people with depression (Cartwright, 1983) and PTSD (Ross et al, 1989).

However, although these dreams can contain elements of real life, they are often distorted: it is rare for the complete memory to be ‘played out’ in our dream. It is been suggested that this is because during sleep we cannot access full episodic memories (memories of events) but instead just traces of them.  This has been hypothesised to be due to reduced hippocampus (the part of our brain involved in memory processing) activity during REM sleep (Buzsàki, 1996). The fact that our dreams can contain strange events or impossibilities is thought to be due to a lack of activity in the prefrontal cortex – the area involved in attention and logic (Stickgold et al, 2001).

In addition to consolidating episodic memories another proposed function of our dreams is to enhance learning of procedural tasks (Smith et al, 1996). Studies in rats have found increased levels of REM sleep after procedural learning, and that less REM sleep resulted in poorer memory (Smith et al, 1985).

Whilst REM sleep and our dreams may be useful for certain types of memory consolidation, it doesn’t mean that this is the only way consolidation takes place, or that it is needed to consolidate every type of memory (Stickgold et al, 2001). The authors of this review hypothesize that dreaming enables the brain “to identify and evaluate novel cortical associations in the light of emotions… during REM”. To put it simply, when we dream our brain is working on processing new memories, learning procedures, and our emotions to events.


Perfect Memory Syndrome

Can you imagine being able to remember every single day of your life? This is the case for people with highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) – an extremely rare condition which affects fewer than 100 people in the world.

In contrast to the majority of us, who can probably recall some details about what we’ve been doing on specific days for the last fortnight or so, people with HSAM can do this for years, and some even right back to when they were a baby.

The first recorded case of HSAM was in a woman called Jill Price in 2000, by memory specialist Dr James McGaugh at the University of California. Jill could remember every day of her life in detail, back until she was 14 years old. She knows what happened on any given date and what day of the week it was, right down to specific details like sounds and smell. She believes her extraordinary memory was triggered by her and her family moving to a different part of the USA when she was 8 – she was anxious about forgetting things about her old life and after this period, found her memory had changed.

However, just because people with HSAM can remember every detail about what has happened in their lives, this doesn’t mean that they have a superior memory when it comes to other types of information. For a quick recap – our long term memories are divided into 3 main groups: episodic – personal information about us e.g. memories of what we did for our birthday last year, or our experience of school when we were little; semantic – facts e.g. knowing the year London held the Olympics or the capital city of Spain. The third category is procedural memory, which is memory for actions e.g. how to ride a bike (for more information see this blog post). People with HSAM have extraordinary episodic memory, but they perform similarly to the general population on tests which involve the other two – they have no greater capacity to remember facts or memorise large amounts of information than we do. Another study has shown that they are more susceptible than control participants to a task which aims to plant false memories (Patihis et al, 2013) – so their memory is still as unreliable as ours.

How people with HSAM encode memories has also been tested, and the authors of the study (Leport et al, 2017) concluded that they seem to create memories in exactly the same way as the general population. This, added to the results of the false memory test seems to suggest that there isn’t something special about the way memories of people with HSAM are made which means they can remember more. The current hypothesis is that it is something in between encoding and retrieval which makes their memory so special.

The brain structure of people with HSAM has been investigated using fMRI, with images showing that people with the condition have differences to the parahippocampal gyrus, anterior insula and temporal gyrus. (LePort et al, 2012). Previous research has shown that these areas are involved in autobiographical memory, so this result perhaps isn’t surprising. There was also evidence of improved coherence in the white matter tract which connects the two hemispheres, suggesting a superior ability to transfer information between different parts of the brain. However, this study alone is not enough to show whether these differences were caused by the advanced memory capabilities of these participants, or whether they are a result of them remembering so much information.

Although having perfect memory might seem to be an advantage, people will this condition can often struggle with the sheer amount of information they can remember. Memories are often described as intrusive, popping up when they see anything which reminds them of something in the past. Jill Price says that she perceives a ‘split screen’, with the present happening on the left, and a constant stream of memories on the right. Having the ‘perfect memory’ might be more trouble than it’s worth.


'Memory stick.'

Déjà vu

I’m sure you’ve all experienced that feeling where you find yourself thinking that things you are currently experiencing have happened before. Déjà vu (meaning ‘already seen’) can feel kind of creepy, but why does it happen?

Déjà vu has been reported to occur in about 60-80% of the healthy population (e.g. Adachi et al, 2003), but is also thought to be linked to temporal lobe epilepsy (Stevens, 1990). There have been several different theories about why this occurs, including the two sides of the brain not functioning together, a sense of familiarity to one part of an experience being mistakenly applied to it all, a problem with how we perceive the timescale of an event, so that something which is happening at the moment is viewed as happening long ago, or a problem with processing sensory information, so that it is processed and reviewed at the same time (see review by Wild, 2005 for a full list).


There have also been several attempts to use neuroanatomy to explain déjà vu. Brázdil et al (2012) compared the brains of healthy participants who did or did not experience déjà vu using an imaging technique called source-based morphometry to measure the amount of grey matter (neurons) in different cortical areas. They found a correlation in certain subcortical areas of the brain (the hippocampus, STS, insula cortices, basal ganglia, and thalami) between lower amount of grey matter and an increase in déjà vu experienced. Several of these structures are in the mesial temporal lobe, which could therefore explain the link between increased déjà vu in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy.

Work to establish the anatomical basis of déjà vu in patients with temporal lobe epilepsy has also suggested that these mesial areas of the temporal lobe are involved. Bancaud et al (1994) studied the anatomical basis of déjà vu using electrodes in epileptic patients prior to surgery which were placed in the temporal lobe, the hippocampus, and the amygdala (you may remember from previous posts that the hippocampus is a structure important for memory, whilst the amygdala is thought to be involved in emotional processing).  They found that déjà vu could be induced by stimulating all of these areas, but that it was 10 times more likely to occur if stimulation was in the hippocampus or amygdala, suggesting that these areas are key to experiencing déjà vu.

As well as occurring in epilepsy, déjà vu is a feature of other psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, anxiety disorders (like PTSD), depression, and dissociative disorders. There have also been reported cases of constant déjà vu, with sufferers constantly feeling as though their current experiences have happened before. For example, one case study of a 23 year old male was reported by Wells et al 2014, who concluded that it was caused by his severe anxiety and tendency of depersonalisation. This patient did not show a memory deficit, although other cases of persistent déjà vu have been reported amongst elderly patients with dementia.

One of the things I find interesting about déjà vu is that it is a feature of several psychiatric disorders as well as something which occurs in most of the healthy population. It doesn’t seem that psychiatrists are entirely sure about why is occurs in some people but not others, and like with several other areas of psychology – more research is needed to be sure of it’s true course. Thanks for reading this week’s post, I’ll try to be back soon with more new material!

Smell and Memory

I’m sure this has happened to you before – you’re walking down the street and you smell something that takes you back to a holiday, or a time when you were younger. It could be the smell of a sweet shop or someone’s perfume, and you are taken straight back to a moment from years ago. But why are smells so linked to memories?

A simple answer is that this link is due to how the brain is organised. Our sense of smell is triggered by a molecule that enters our nose and binds to the hair-like projections (cilia) on neurons at the top of your nasal passage. These neurons project to a part of the brain called the olfactory bulb, which run along the front of the brain, at the bottom. This structure is thought to be involved in interpreting these signals and processing information about smells.

What’s interesting about the olfactory bulb is that it’s the one part of the brain responsible for our senses that has projections to and from the areas of our brain responsible for memory and emotion – the hippocampus and amygdala. You can see this from the image below:



This explains why smells can trigger memories and emotions. The hippocampus is responsible for our episodic memories in particular – personal memories about our lives, which is why it is this type of memory activated by smell. One theory about why these connections exist between the hippocampus and the olfactory bulb is that they enable us to recognise smells from previous experience.

Studies have shown that using smells to trigger memories can be more effective than cuing them with words. For example, Maylor et al (2002) asked young and old adults to recall autobiographical memories associated with 6 cue words. They were then shown the same words and were asked to recall new memories, and for half of these words the appropriate smell was presented too. The researchers found that for both age groups, the participants recalled twice as many memories when the smell was presented too, showing the large impact of smell and memory recall.


Brain Plasticity

Although you might think that the structure of your brain is formed before you are born and does not change, this actually isn’t the case. As we grow and learn, the brain is constantly making new connections and pathways between different areas. It used to be believed that anything which had not been developed by a ‘critical period’ during childhood would be lost, with little change after this time, although we now know this is not true.

For example, our different skills and experiences can help to shape our brain. This has been particularly studied using musicians, as extensive practice and repetition of certain fine-tuned motor actions can result in more of the motor cortex being involved in directing the actions of the hand and fingers.

Pascual-Leone et al (1995) found that novices learning to play a simple exercise on a piano over 5 days showed an increase in size in the cortical areas involved in the movement of the fingers. Schlaugh (2001) carried out fMRI to compare the size of the intrasulcal length (part of the motor cortex) in professional musicians and controls, and found it was much longer for musicians in the right hemisphere (which controls the left hand). This is shown in the image below, taken from this paper.


It is through the process of brain plasticity that new memories are formed. Motor memories such as becoming more accomplished at music are one type of memory which alter the brain structure, but our personal memories also change our brain. This occurs through the process of Long-term Potentiation (LTP), which is the process of connections between cells at synapses strengthened. It mainly occurs in the hippocampus and other cortical areas responsible for our long term memories. This process is illustrated by the image below:


Brain plasticity is also encouraged in treatment and rehabilitation from brain injury. For example, after a stroke it has been found that giving excitatory stimulation to the damaged areas can improve function (e.g. improving language function – Szaflarski et al, 2011). Just by encouraging movement in people who have had a stroke can also help them to regain function of limbs on their impaired side.

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to check back next week for another post!



Following on from the post about my dissertation.. now on to the next thing that’s been taking up quite a lot of my time this year – my research project. For this part of my degree, I had to carry out my own experiment on something which had not been shown before, and analyse the results.

I chose to look into nostalgic memories, and in particular, do we feel nostalgic from reading someone else’s nostalgic memories? It seemed like there was a bit of a gap in the research that had been done so far: although we know the functions of nostalgia (e.g. self esteem) and features of nostalgic memories (e.g. loved ones), not much work had been done on ways of making people feel nostalgic.

To start, I should probably make clear what nostalgia is: it is defined as a
“sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past”

The problem I identified with existing research was that most experiments manipulated nostalgia by asking participants to write down a nostalgic or ordinary memory, reading words that describe nostalgia and writing a memory based on them, or by listening to a nostalgic or ordinary song. These methods are fine if you then want to find out about effects of nostalgia, but are they equally effective in inducing nostalgia?
Nostalgia is also a very social emotion, and a study has shown that thinking of a nostalgic memory involving an out-group member leads to fewer feelings of prejudice towards that person (Turner et al, 2012). If nostalgia is a social emotion, then I hypothesised that reading someone else’s nostalgic memories could cause you to feel nostalgic. There had only been one study which found that nostalgia could be induced by reading someone else’s old love letters, or looking at their old photos. I decided to present participants with an actual nostalgic (or ordinary) memory narrative from someone else, and told participants the memory was from someone similar or dissimilar to them in age (to see whether similarity affected results). I compared how effective this method was with a previous method of making people feel nostalgic – giving participants a list of words that described nostalgia, or were more general, and asked them to write a memory based on these features.

My hypotheses:
1. That reading the nostalgic memory would make people feel nostalgic (compared to reading an ordinary memory).
2. That participants who were told the nostalgic memory was from someone similar to them would feel more nostalgic than those who were told it was from someone different.
3. That this method would be effective, but more nostalgia would be induced from writing your own memory in the comparison condition.

The reason I thought that similarity would effect results was because of principles shown in social psychology – it has been found that when people are categorised into groups, they will automatically perceive themselves as being more similar to other in-group members, and therefore more dissimilar from out-group members (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Therefore, the perceived similarity of the reader to the person who wrote the memory could increase the amount of nostalgia transferred to the reader of the narrative. I called this a similarity-based “transfer effect” of nostalgia.

Design of Experiment:
– 121 participants, all between the ages of 16 and 24 (so I could manipulate similarity by age)
– Participants split into 6 groups: nostalgia similar, nostalgia dissimilar, ordinary similar, ordinary dissimilar, central features (write memory) and peripheral features (write memory).
– At the top of the memory narratives, a sentence explained this was ‘an actual memory from someone aged 20 (similar condition) or 60 (dissimilar condition).
– After participants had either read the memory, or read the features and written their own memory, they then completed a questionnaire to assess how nostalgic they felt.

What I found:

Hypothesis 1: Reading someone else’s nostalgic memory did make people feel more nostalgic than those who read an ordinary memory.

Hypothesis 2: Similarity had an effect on the amount of nostalgia people felt: participants in the nostalgia similar condition felt more nostalgia than participants in the nostalgia dissimilar condition – EVEN THOUGH the memory was the same, the age of writer differed.This is shown by the graph below.


Hypothesis 3: The participants who wrote their own memory based on central features of nostalgia felt more nostalgic than participants who had read a nostalgic memory. However, there was no difference between the central and peripheral conditions, which differed from the original study (Hepper et al, 2012), who found peripheral features did not induce nostalgia. The graph below shows the results for this, and hypothesis 1: more nostalgia felt by participants who read someone else’s nostalgic memory than someone’s ordinary memory.


The results of my experiment are the first to show that people can be made to feel nostalgic by reading someone else’s nostalgic memory, and that the amount of nostalgia felt depends on how similar the writer of the memory is to the reader. Therefore, it sets the basis for more research to be done on different ways of manipulating similarity and other ways of inducing nostalgia.

Hope you found this interesting and let me know if you’ve got any questions – I know this is a really complicated experiment!