Your Brain On Stranger Things
Your Brain On Fun is a series that is all about how and why we are wired to love the things we love. In this episode we take a spoiler-free look at how Stranger Things has captivated audiences with it’s ’80s retro nostalgia.
Stranger Things which premiered on Netflix, has been the streaming service’s most watched, buzzed-about and best-reviewed original series. While the show’s success can be traced to a combination of different elements. For one, it plays on people’s fondness for shows and movies from back in the day. The stellar storytelling sometimes seems to exist solely to nod toward the ’80s memorabilia that Stranger Things’ creators, the Duffer brothers, clearly adore. Stranger Things plays on audience’s fondness for shows and movies from back in the day.
Nostalgia is one of the key driving forces in the show, but how does it capture our attention and make us feel all warm and gooey in the dankest depths of our cold Scrooge-like hearts? Funnily enough, Nostalgia was first considered a disorder, the Greek word is derived from soldiers’ mental and physical maladies for their longing to return home (nostos) and the accompanying pain (algos). Coined by 17th-century Swiss physician Johannes Hoffer, he described it as neurological disease “of essentially demonic cause” which is not too far from a Stranger Things story spoiler.
This painful bittersweet side of nostalgia is actually the emotional center of our brain (the amygdala) cross-talking with our memory systems (controlled by the hippocampus).
During an experience these two structures work together. The amygdala helps you perceive the emotional flavor of an event and your hippocampus is tasked with processing the event into memories. Consequently, an experience becomes intertwined with feelings. You probably don’t remember much of the ’80s (and that’s probably a good thing) but nostalgia gives you the ability to place yourself back in to time, sometimes entirely different contexts to one’s own experience in life, to re-enjoy past occurrences.
Over the years it has been shown that nostalgia makes people more generous towards one other. Perhaps it is one of many tools in our evolutionary arsenal that has helped us as a species to counteract and overcome hard times, like feelings of loneliness, boredom and anxiety, to spend more time looking for food and shelter. Now that the majority of our species prioritizes Netflix over food/shelter, shows like Stranger Things uses nostalgia to grab our attention and fuel our viewing binge.