The Science Behind Nostalgia

Published on July 3rd, 2017

When the pressure of growing up become too unsettling, we tend to seek refuge in the hazy memories of simpler times. Sunburned shoulders and sandy toes, the soothing sounds of Saturday morning cartoons, the soft scrape of a slide and lull of a swing – effortless luxuries that came with existing for the sole sake of being alive.

These memories ease us through our current realities, creating a picturesque, gilded projection of a childhood lost; a history unscathed.

Nostalgia, or a yearning for the past, is a cornerstone of existing. The smell of crayons will forever trigger the freedom of elementary school. Music from MTV’s past Top 40 lists will always be tied to preteen exploration. But there’s a mechanic underlying this seemingly scattered madness, and there’s a reason our minds tend to wander into the dusty pages of the past.

With nostalgia, we grasp for memories that we can never truly touch and tend to idealize and distort the images, places and things we used to know. It’s the merging of different moments to form one concrete state unplagued by negativity.

How easy it is to remember the highs without ruminating on the lows – we think of our firsts without the blunders it took to get there; of being children at play without the pain that came when we fell down. We desire not only to relive these memories, but to also experience the emotions they elicited, making nostalgia a desire for an idealized emotional period more than anything else.

According to “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding” by Alan R. Hirch, “The yearning for an idealized timeframe manifests as an attempt to recreate that past era by reproducing activities performed then and by using symbolic representations of the past.”

In essence, that explains why so many people are caught in the same cycle of repetition. We attach certain smells, objects and places to emotional cues and turn to them to feel like we once did.

“The ocean breeze always makes me think of watching the sunset in Naples where I was born. It makes me think of my childhood,” senior Howard H. Grant said.

Nostalgia is such an intricate topic that it was at one time considered a symptom of depression – a madman’s obsession with the past and a stubborn inability to exist in the present. However, studies have shown that nostalgia can actually counteract depression, rather than fuel it. When negativity starts to sprout its weeds, nostalgia takes us down to our roots and reminds us of our capacity for happiness.

“We tend to remember things more rosy than they actually occurred,” said UM cognitive psychology Professor Elyse K. Hurtado. “This is the optimism bias. In this way, nostalgia and memory are similar. They both are biased; both are overly optimistic. I would say nostalgia is a ‘type’ of memory, but it is [also] more emotional ­– an overall feeling about a particular time or place.”

When we’re upset, we won’t lament over memories of traffic jams or failed tests – we’ll think of birthday parties and graduations. Nostalgia acts as an unconscious slideshow guaranteeing not just a beautified image of the past, but a luminous template for the future.

Nostalgia strengthens our views of ourselves and shows us a microcosm of reality where the good overrides the bad. It gives meaning to the mundane. Nostalgia creates hope, and sometimes a lack of hope is what leads people down the road of reminiscing in the first place. Whether the emotions it summons ever existed originally is irrelevant, because if we can recreate a shadow of that bliss in the present, then nostalgia has served its purpose.

Essentially, there’s nothing wrong with getting a little nostalgic every now and then. It’s a universal human experience that crosses every cultural boundary. Let’s just remember to make worthwhile memories that we can get nostalgic over in the future, too.

words_asmae fahmy. photo_jess clavero. 


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