The Science Behind Nostalgia And Why We're So Obsessed With The Past

by Lauren Martin

Don’t you wish you could just live in the past? Curl up in it like a warm blanket, covering all the cold unknowns and unexposed realities of tomorrow. Bury yourself in its warmth, the glowing days of pure joy and limited worries.

The comfort of childhood and zero responsibility. Snuggling down into the abyss of better days and easy living?

Those moments of childhood at the park. Those days of Pre-K with worries only of ice cream at snack time and after-school television.

Those perfect moments of carnival rides and Disney movies, absorbing only the purest and most joyous moments of life. Those perfect days followed by perfect nights when nothing went wrong and we were always happy.

The past is as elusive a dream as the future. Always distorted, always yearned for, and always seen as better days. It keeps us from the truth of the present and the pain of reality. It’s seen as something beautiful, something irrevocable and somewhere that will always be better than where we are now.

However, like the unforeseeable future, the past itself is an idealized version of something we want it to be, not what we know as reality.

The way we remember memories is constantly distorted. By recalling a memory of the past, you are remembering it as your brain has chosen to distort it, not by the actuality of its events.

Because of its distorted and pleasant qualities, people spend days wrapped up in the fantasy of it, longing for it the way some do lovers. This yearning, this distorted idea of better days and times we wish were again is known as the common infliction of nostalgia.

According to Alan R. Hirsch in his report, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” nostalgia is a yearning for an idealized past -- “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory -- not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”

You remember fleeting feelings, emotions and moments of glee. You do not remember the seconds of sadness and hurt before it. You don’t remember the pain and anguish of the hours after. You only remember what your biased mind has chosen to recall.

However, as it turns out, nostalgia isn't about remembering memories at all. As Hirsh points out, nostalgia does not relate to a specific memory, but rather an emotional state.

We put an emotional state within an era, or a specific frame, and choose to idealize that specific time. We deduce that because we remember the feeling of happiness at the park, our childhood must have been better than right now.

We even place it in inanimate objects, places and smells. Like with Horcruxes (shout-out to my "Harry Potter" fans), we lock away bits of ourselves into things and beings.

Anything we experienced concurrently with those feelings is placed away as something to be recalled and reminisced over later.

For example, in 1908, Freud recognized a strong link between odors and the emotions.

Later, scientific findings backed up this observation, proving that odor is the strongest sense connected to emotion due to the nose’s direct connection with the olfactory lobe in the limbic system -- the area of the brain considered the seat of the emotions.

Thus, while the average person can smell 10,000 odors, no two people smell the same thing. We react to smells differently, associate them with different things and yearn for them differently.

According to Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey in England, the usefulness of nostalgia varies with age, with young adults participating in it most. There is then a decline in nostalgic thoughts and tendencies towards middle age and even old age.

However, it makes sense that those in the most turbulent and unsettled time of their lives would yearn for the simplicity and safety of childhood. In your twenties and thirties, you are lost in the upheaval of everything you once knew to complete isolation and independence.

However, as more and more research attests to the positive capabilities of nostalgia, maybe we should think about indulging in it for the rest of our lives.

It counteracts depression

For many years, those experiencing extreme nostalgia were diagnosed as depressed. Indulging in memories of the past was seen as a sign of homesickness and refusal to enjoy the present. It was seen as lack of commitment to the future and a burdening attachment to the past.

According to John Tierney of The New York Times, living in the past, or nostalgia, was deemed a disorder since the 17th century when a Swiss physician attributed soldiers’ mental and physical ailments to their longing to return home.

However, since more research has been conducted, it’s been proven that nostalgia actually works to counteract depression.

The act of reminiscing has been shown to counteract loneliness and anxiety, while also promoting personal interactions, and improving the longevity of marriages. When people speak fondly and lovingly of the past, they also tend to become more hopeful for the future. By recalling the past, they look forward to what’s to come.

It’s something we can all agree on

It’s safe to say we all wish we could go back to the past.

According to The New York Times, “most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week.”

Nostalgia, like sorrow and happiness, is a universal feeling. It’s one that all races, cultures and ages share. We all grow nostalgic for the past, even if it’s not the same one we share.

It’s the ability to understand these emotions in one another, to have empathy, that links us as humans and makes us better communicators. If it weren't for nostalgia, we wouldn't lament for others who had bad childhoods and connect with those with ones similar to our own.

It gives us a reason to live

More powerful than the future, the past gives us reason to carry on. Rather than facing the unknown, we go back to the past to remember why life is worth living. We latch on to memories of happiness to give us faith in the future.

Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University states, “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives.”

He goes on to explain that those who participate in nostalgia are most likely better off when coping with realities of death. When thinking back to your life, and the moments that comprised it, you find value and meaning in it. You are no longer burdened with the heavy weight that your life went unfulfilled.

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