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SYFY WIRE Science Behind the Fiction

Science Behind the Fiction: How Disney+ is capturing nostalgia

By Cassidy Ward
Darkwing Duck

Disney is one of the biggest media empires in the world, second only to Alphabet, the public holding company that owns Google. In terms of sheer pop-culture power — between its own Disney branded content, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars — there's no one who can go toe-to-toe with Disney. So it made total sense it would design its own service. Why lease its IP out to others, such as Netflix or Hulu, when it could house it all, well, in-house?

Most of the Star Wars movies are there, along with episodes of the animated series. They've got a good chunk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with more on the way. There's an impressive array of recent releases, the likes of which are worth the price of subscription on their own. And, yes, everyone is watching The Mandalorian and is excited about the other upcoming Disney+ original series. But the thing that has a lot of people talking — and willing to shell out a few hard-earned dollars for yet another streaming subscription — is all the classic Disney content from yesteryear.

The list of day-one launch titles is staggering. There are nearly 500 movies and more than 7,000 episodes of television, including just about everything you loved as a kid.

The prospect of all the new content will keep people around. But the chance to relive our childhoods is what's bringing people in, now, to the tune of 10 million subscribers in the first few weeks. Let's be honest, the chance to re-watch Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and Darkwing Duck is more than worth $6.99, it's priceless.


Millennials have been called the nostalgia generation, and for good reason. If you don't have a vinyl collection bigger than your parents', you know someone who does. Cassette tapes are making a comeback. Polaroid cameras. Vintage furniture. The NES Classic had lines around the block and sold out almost immediately. Our kids, if we have them, are watching the same cartoons and playing the same video games we did twenty-plus years ago, lacquered in a new coat of digital paint. And I don't know about you, but my playlists are 90 percent songs I listened to fifteen years ago.

Maybe it's arrested development, but I don't think so. There's good evidence that these are choices we're making for our mental health, whether we know it or not.

The term "nostalgia" was first coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor. He noticed that Swiss soldiers, at war, far from home, exhibited particular symptoms. Namely, they were disconnected and thinking of home. Given their circumstances, it seems a perfectly natural response, but Hofer deemed it a disease (caused by demons, of course) and named it Nostalgia, after the Greek word nostos (return home) and algos (pain).

For a long time, the stigma surrounding nostalgia stuck. It was interpreted as an unhealthy fixation on the past, on things which were lost. More recently, however, our understanding of nostalgia has evolved.

It's something you probably experience on a pretty regular basis. Research shows that children as young as seven look back fondly on holidays or family vacations. According to some reports, adults nostalgize at least once a week, with most doing it several times per week.

Researchers at the University of Southampton, in England, developed a series of experiments to instigate a sense of nostalgia and measure its effects on mood and the brain.

They accomplished this by having participants read news stories about tragic events and take personality tests which determined them to be especially lonely. In response, those participants began to nostalgize and subsequently felt better.

They found that when people feel bad, they reminisce about when things were good. This is, essentially, what Hofer saw in those Swiss soldiers. His observations were valid, but his conclusion was flawed.

In controlled settings, scientists find that this sort of behavior is not a deficiency. Instead, by spending time thinking about past good times, we're reminded that life has meaning and is worth living. It's a coping mechanism and one that may have an evolutionary benefit.

Another study carried out by Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University found that people are more likely to nostalgize in cold environments. People are more likely to think of happy memories on cold days, or when placed in a cold room.

Participants in this study didn't all nostalgize, but those who did reported feeling warmer. This may have a link to our evolutionary past, when our relationship to the world was less controlled. In short, when the going gets rough, we think of the good times, and that carries us through.

This occurs because, when we hear a song, or smell something which reminds us of a pleasant memory, certain areas of the brain are activated. People in the process of nostalgic activity experience increased activity in the brain's reward centers. The song or smell, doesn't even need to be something we enjoyed at the time, just something associated with a pleasant period in our lives.

The unfortunate thing is Millennials and Gen Xers report higher levels of stress than other generations. We find ourselves in times of trouble more often than we'd like, and the evidence suggests that when that happens, it's natural to turn to the past for comfort.

There's nothing we can do to reclaim a time before the stress of adulthood, before the housing crash or 9/11. But we can spend a few minutes remembering when things were easier. When all we had to worry about was waking up on time to catch our favorite cartoons. When your biggest worry was if your parents were going to pick up the phone and ruin the Napster download you'd been working on for the last 18 hours.

Considering the world as it is, when money is tight, the environment is wrecked, and we're all just trying to make it day by day, nostalgia has currency.

You may not be able to invest in your retirement as much as you'd like, but you can invest in feeling good for a little while. It's free. Or, at most it's $6.99 a month.

Say what you will about the state of media, with its reboots and sequels, but watching a few episodes of The Adventures of the Gummi Bears might remind you what it feels like to be alive, to be happy and have hope, and I don't know that you can put a price on that.

In the end, it's okay to try and find your way back to those happy moments, even if it's only 22 minutes at a time. Just remember to stop facing backward and build some new memories, here in the present, things of which you can be nostalgic later on.

In the meantime, there's always Goof Troop.