Back with a bump

Isn’t it weird how things come back ‘in’ and become popular again approx 20 – 30 years after the first time they were ‘en Vogue’? 

It happens all the time: just at the point when you think not a single person on earth would willingly wear flares again, they come back in fashion. Bands that fell out of favour are back in the music charts and classic video games are re-released, all to huge fanfare. 

But what are the psychological drivers behind these reemerging trends? 

The first main psychological theory relevant is Memory. We have two main types of memories – short term memories and long term memories and (perhaps unsurprisingly) it’s our long term memory stores that are relevant here. Any memories regarding events & knowledge related to our life story that are held in our long term memory store are classed as autobiographical memories and when people are asked to recall their autobiographical memories, a striking pattern tends to emerge…

Psychologists have been researching the area of human memory for decades. It’s one of the main pillars of cognitive psychology and one of the first things you’ll learn about on any psychology course. For good reason – we rely on our long term memories to guide us through life. So many of our decisions are guided by our memories of past events and our past experiences can shape our sense of self. 

The reminiscence bump 

One of the key trends that has been seen within autobiographical memory research is the reminiscence bump. When people (usually in their middle age) are asked to freely recall memories from their life, most of the memories they recall come from when they were aged between 10 and 30 years old. That’s not to say that memories from other ages aren’t readily recalled, they are, it’s just the highest concentration of memories are from those age ranges. 

So we know that people are more likely to easily remember things from their lives between the ages of 10 – 30. What else is driving these re-emerging trends? 

The neuropsychology of nostalgia 

That warm fuzzy feeling when you’re reminded of an old favourite song, or suddenly see people (usually youngsters) around you wearing the clothes you wore at their age is nostalgia.  A concept you have undoubtedly heard mentioned on numerous occasions and one with which you are very familiar. 

Especially if you are roughly over the age of 20. 

Especially over the past year through the COVID pandemic. 

So let’s look a bit more closely at what happens in our brains when we experience nostalgia. Brain imaging studies have shown one of the main areas active with nostalgic thoughts is the hippocampus. 

The hippocampus is known for being an integral part of our long term memory system. It’s a small-sized part of the brain but one which has a huge impact in how we can recall oodles of information and situations from our past. For example, we know it’s an important part of long term memory systems by scanning the brains of London Taxi Drivers, who have to memorise the capital’s thousands of roads and landmarks without the use of any satnav systems. Typically, London Taxi Driver’s hippocampal regions are seen to have a larger volume than those who aren’t London cabbies. So when nostalgic thoughts are triggered, the hippocampus is active. 

In a brain imaging study conducted in Japan, the triggering of nostalgic memories related to childhood showed an increase in activity of the hippocampus and other regions of the brain and the participants in the study reported significantly higher feelings of nostalgia, which in turn made them feel happy.

In fact, another study that used fMRI found that when people recalled happy memories, they showed similar brain activity patterns to when someone receives money, meaning that recalling these memories can be a rewarding experience and help to boost our mood!

So, the emotional power of nostalgia is pretty clear to see. Add to this that most of the people making decisions within the business world are those approaching or in mid-age, so will have plenty of memories available to them from their reminiscence bump, and it’s easy to understand why we’re seeing fashion trends, musical artists and other iconic toys and games, woven into the threads of popular culture in the 90s starting to re-emerge. 

The nostalgia effect has been particularly poignant over the past 18 months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when we have been reaching for things that can bring us comfort and so many have found it with the power of nostalgia. However, social history and psychology shows us that the pattern of re-emerging trends every 20-30 years is definitely one that will continue to be repeated. 


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Updated 14th May 2020