The Marred Beauty of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a beautiful, there is no doubt about that. It is a remembrance of things past, moments of joy, moments of wonder. But nostalgia’s beauty is often marred by the onus we place upon it.

Music and Joy

Neuroscientists wanted to learn about how people enjoy music. They played songs for people, their favorite songs, and looked at what happened inside their brains. Of course they enjoyed their favorite songs. Of course their brains released the neurotransmitters of joy. Of course, these were their favorite songs. But what was odd, what the neuroscientists didn’t anticipate, was that the joy happened before the best part.

As the participants in the study listened to their favorite songs their brains would give them the sense of joy, of happiness, of enjoying a favorite thing a few moments before the best part. If they liked the swelling chorus or the mournful minor chord, their minds would give them the neurotransmitters just before that point. The joy was not a reaction to the unknown but anticipation of the known and expected.

Patterns Whether You Like Them or Not

Another thing that the human brain does exceptionally well is recognize patterns. Sometimes we create patterns when they aren’t even there. We see faces in the shadows or animals in the clouds. Our minds seek order, meaning, purpose from the world. And one of the most powerful patterns that our brains recognize is the pattern of what brings us joy.

At a neurological level joy is a host of neurotransmitters that condition us to respond in a certain way. Something good happened — we got food, we found safety, we connected with another person — so our brains made us feel good so we would do that again. We find the patterns that get us to those places of joy, of feeling good, and we repeat them. We listen to the same song, we watch the same movie, we spend time with the same person, we eat the same foods, all to recreate the patterns that led us to joy.

But the return diminishes. The first experience of joy is almost always the most intense. Each successive experience, if nothing significant changes, will bring us less joy. We repeat the pattern but get less joy from it. Which leaves us with two options, if we want to continue to experience joy. We can amplify the pattern or find something new.

More is Better

If one piece of bacon is good then two must be better. If one viewing of Star Wars is good then five must be better. If one hour spent with a friend is good then ten must be better.

And it is. To a point.

Two hundred pieces of bacon is too much. Watching Star Wars every waking hour of every day is too much. Only spending time with one other person is too much.

But we rarely hit those limits so we keep piling on more. We keep doing more, consuming more, experiencing more because it gives us another hit of the joy-drugs produced by our brains.

Different is Good

The other option is to try new things. We can go to a new restaurant and try a dish we’ve never heard of before. We can see a movie without any knowledge of what it’s about and experience it completely anew. We can meet a new person and experience the joy of a new friend.

And the newness brings us joy. To a point.

But each new meal is a risk. New movies could just as well be terrible as awesome. Meeting new people takes energy that might not be returned.

So we often strike a balance between the new and the familiar, between the patterns recognized and the patterns yet to be discovered, between the fading joy of the familiar and the fresh joy of the new.

Nostalgia and the Lizard Brain

We all have a lizard brain stuck deep within our skulls. It’s that part of our brain that looks very much like what a lizard has. It’s the primal part, the instinctual part, the part that is meant to keep us alive. And it’s the part of our brains that is most easily accessed by outside stimuli.

Our sense of smell connects, almost directly, to our lizard brain and that triggers memories almost instantly. Before our brains have a chance to process thoughts, before they reason, before they consider, they remember. Our brains check the stimuli against past patterns, check for good or bad memories, and then use neurotransmitters to tell us how we should respond.

We smell the scent of perfume that reminds us of our grandmother’s house, then we remember what that was like. If it was pleasant we feel nostalgia. If it wasn’t we might feel fear or shame.

The Childbirth Effect

I have never given birth, nor will I. What I’ve been told, however, is that the memory of the pain fades for many mothers.

My experience was with farming. My wife and I lived in Ireland for a summer and worked on a farm. We have delightful memories of that summer, of tilling the earth and caring for animals and spending the days warmed by the sun. We also remember huddling together at night for warmth, being pelted by rain so cold it hurt, having blisters on our hands and feet but still having to get up and shovel manure the next day. The memories of the pain have faded over the years so that when we think of Ireland and that summer we most often have memories that bring us joy.

We all have this response to a certain degree. If there was any joy at all in our past we tend to amplify it and think less about the pain. I don’t think much about being bullied as a child. I tend to think about the fun I had with my friends, the family trips, the joy I experienced. And that’s what nostalgia is, thinking about what was good in our past.

We know that it was, at least in some small way, good because we survived it. Our brains want to keep us safe and alive and the fact that they’re still working is proof of their success. So memories are recontextualized. Our past is seen through the lens of our present and if we’re alive now and okay now then we must have done something right in our past.

The Beauty of Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a beautiful reminder of our survival, of our past, of our joy. It is the recapitulation of the best parts of our favorite song. It reconnects us to the good that we have experienced, even amidst the struggles. It reminds us that with each new experience there is the chance for joy, the possibility of delight. It steels us to the risks of life so that we can explore, learn, grow, and change into better people.

Nostalgia’s beauty is in its reinforcing what makes us human, our desire to find patterns that bring joy. Nostalgia helps us to be our best selves, to recognize the best in others, and to live lives with hope that the joy we found in the past can be found again in the future.

The Marring of Nostalgia

But at the same time nostalgia can be a trap, a drug, an addiction that we feed instead of a tool that we use.

More and more it seems that nostalgia is a crutch for the makers of entertainment. Remakes, reboots, reimaginings of the past seem to be everywhere. And it’s not a bad thing to recall the joys of the past. Nostalgia is beautiful. But it can also be lazy, easy, cheap. When a movie doesn’t bother to tread any new ground, when it simply trades on the joy of the past without driving us to experience anything new, anything different, anything challenging, then nostalgia has been marred.

Worse still is the nostalgia of politics. The promise that the joy of the past will be restored in the future. Most of us do remember the past with some fondness, we have some nostalgia for the way things were. Things seemed simpler, safer, easier back then. But that feeling isn’t reality. We struggled in the past, we hurt, we have the scars to prove it. When politics and politicians attempt to deny the pain and struggle of the past, to hold up where we were as some sort of ideal, they are forgetting that where we are is a direct result of where we were. We can’t roll back the clock. We can’t make the old new again. We can’t, because we have already lived through that time and been changed by it.

Reclaiming Nostalgia

I’m not trying to get rid of nostalgia. It is a beautiful and powerful thing. Our shared nostalgia for past joys brings us together to experience new joys. Nostalgia reminds us that we’ve made it this far and that we can keep going.

But we’ve become addicted, dependent. We can’t seem to find joy without nostalgia. We can’t envision a future that is better than our past. We’ve become crippled by the shimmering, unattainable beauty of a nostalgia that minimizes pain and emphasizes joy. No future will ever hold up to our remembrance of the past, so why even try?

But the truth is that our future keeps getting better, our world keeps getting safer, our art keeps getting deeper and more beautiful. We have become blind to the wonder and delight of our present because we are too enamored with a mirage of the past that never actually existed. The past made us who we are, but the future holds who we will become. And if we are to become more than we were, to create better things, be better people, work for better lives, then we need to break our addiction to nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a reminder of our perseverance, it is a signpost of our hope, it is a salve for our pain. Nostalgia’s beauty is in its encouragement to us. Nostalgia say: Go, be, do, explore. Take risks, make new things, step boldly into the unknown. You did it before and look how it turned out. You did it in the past and you are here now because of it. You did it, so you can do it again.

Let nostalgia propel us into the future rather than keep us mired in the past.