Nostalgia and Us

Sepia filters, vintage hairdos, revival in interest of music genres that had died decades ago and our obsession with shows like Mad Men are just mere reminders that when it comes to emotions, there’s nothing we love renting space to in our consciousness more than nostalgia.

Potentially powerful feelings which permeate in the form of remembrances of a bygone era seen through rose-tinted glasses that make us believe that things were so much better back then (when they actually weren’t). They often overlook the fact that despite the worries, we lead more satisfied lives now on our own terms as mature grown-ups (mostly) and not the confused, silly and plain-annoying teenage selves we left behind that we can’t help but reminisce so fondly about. These thoughts overlook almost to the point of being plain blind to those lackluster hours of adolescent boredom or “That Angsty Phase™” of our teens we lived through and focus directly at our fondest memories.

So, what’s the deal with our mind’s inability to live outside the past? Why do we find such inexplicable warmth when we think of Christmas from our childhood as we quietly sip lukewarm coffee in a cold, empty apartment? Is it because this disconnection from our present serves as a therapeutic relief to many, something which the present with its dizzying occurrence of events and the future with its uncertainty are unable to offer us?

Psychologically, the reason is attributed to something called as the memory bias, which as it sounds makes our brain lean towards a specific form of memory either enhancing, impairing or even altering it in the process. Among the many memory biases, one of them includes reminiscence bump, which results in us recalling events from our adolescent and childhood life with greater frequency and far more vividly than events from other stages in our life. Associated with this is the “rosy reminiscence” which like its namesake tends to make such memories a lot sweeter and rosier in our minds than they actually are. This answers why we can be so fondly nostalgic about our not-so-delightful teens and why we tend to think a lot more fondly about how we used to play “Doctor” as kids than the time when you actually became a real doctor. Ironic doesn’t even begin to describe this.

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However, I think there has to be a greater reason beyond science that explains our eternal love for nostalgia. Call me a skeptic, but I don’t believe every form of human behavior can be attributed to how a squishy oversized organ (in our head) behaves to situations in our life. I know that’s not entirely true but I think there is more to nostalgia.

I believe emotionally connecting with our younger selves helps us maintain a sense of continuity over time. By looking back at our formative years through our memory, we are able to retain our identity in a vital sense. Looking back is often an important way to see where you stand on the journey that you have undertaken — an essential part of the thinking process associated with self-discovery. This self-aware means of looking at our past to remember what defines us has been an integral part of the thinking process of humans for as long they have been capable of thinking.

There might be another reason why humans tend to be nostalgic so often, when no animals show such behavior with the frequency that we do. I believe it might have something to do with us being so self-aware of our age. The “age in numbers” myth may affect us in more ways than it might be initially apparent. Most of these nostalgic trips generally tend to trigger without fail around annual events – birthdays and anniversaries – which  like milestones spring up in the flow of life to serve as key reminders of not just how time has flown by but also of our own age. This conscious perceiving of age in numbers is something that no other animal besides human is capable of.

So, is that what makes us so nostalgic? Our biased brain sweetening (calorie-free) our memories, the means to retain our identity in our eternal quest of self-discovery or just plain numbers? Numbers – in the absence of which, we would really have no indicator of time and then where would we stand? Would we ceaselessly worry about what we have achieved and what we have not? Would we look back so often at our past and compare ourselves with the scathing eye of an unforgiving critic? Would we even worry about time running out?

Perhaps, that is how it stands. We are slaves to time and even our thinking process cannot be detached from this reality, thus explaining our love affair with revival genres, HD collections, digital remasters, Lana Del Rey, repackaged cereal boxes, retro influences and Don Draper.