our memories are an important part of us and who we have become
By Anna Alford: Culture Columnist
Dreaming of pre-pandemic days? Or are you already looking back on your cooped-up time with warmth in your heart? You can thank nostalgia for this. Due to its distorted and dream-like qualities, nostalgia makes it easy for people to spend hours if not days wrapped up in the fantasy of the past.
Translated roughly from Greek as ‘homecoming pain’, or ‘homecoming ache’, nostalgia describes a longing sentimentality for past events. Originally conceptualized in the 17th century as a mental illness unique to mercenaries fighting war far from home, it has now come to be recognized to have a number of psychological benefits.
Nostalgia has a pretty complex evolutionary purpose which is still not fully understood. It has been found to help us deal with stress, counteract loneliness and make people feel increasingly optimistic about the future. Odysseus, a grand figure in Greek mythology, was a traveler who used memories of his home and family to get through unpropitious times at sea.
What we do know of nostalgia is that it works by combining your memory with the brain’s reward system. We nostalgise inanimate objects, songs, smells, places. Think of the most recent time one of these stimuli brought something to mind. These involuntary, yet meaningful, memories cause firing in the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain. Because of its heavy impact on your emotions, nostalgia can influence your decision-making, making it a useful tool in advertising and political persuasion.
Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign slogan used in the 2016 election was a loaded phrase that drew on America’s nostalgia for the nation’s past, despite its controversial history. Nostalgia acted as a defense against feeling any shame or guilt about issues in American yesteryear. Studies on individuals found that nostalgia can also be used to increase coherence and moral standing of people within a group. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were known for also using the pop culture phenomenon in their own political campaigns. Romanticizing old events also serves a practical function. Collaborative research in 2012 found that recalling nostalgic events can cause people to feel physically warmer. Individuals experience stronger feelings of nostalgia in cold temperature conditions, and recalling nostalgic events can even increase your tolerance to painful cold below 5°C, allowing humans to be more resilient in inhospitable environments.
Having adaptable minds and relying more on glamorized, nostalgic memories, instead of verbatim, has come far from its original classification as a symptom for illness. Studies now challenge the assumption that emotions fall into one of 7 categories, noting nostalgia as one of the 27 ‘main’ emotions we feel, alongside others such as triumph, confusion and entrancement.
So, the next time you turn on the radio and Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’ zaps you back to the times of MSN, Blockbuster and the iPod nano, you can thank her for promoting your mood, self-esteem and perception that your life has any real meaning.
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