A hook called nostalgia

In trying times, we all catch ourselves reminiscing with a mix of sadness and yearning. Indeed, the pandemic has made us all nostalgic with a vengeance. In a new column, we walk you through psychology behind nostalgia.
Last Updated : 31 July 2021, 20:30 IST
Last Updated : 31 July 2021, 20:30 IST

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Author Vikram Seth once wrote about how he seems to “wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias”. Trust Seth to weave in both fond yearning and incredible sadness in a half-phrase. That’s indeed what nostalgia is made of — its impossibility is part of its allure and yet, it is sweet, it is warm and it makes us go all fuzzy.

Nostalgia can strike at the most unexpected of times and can be induced by the most obscure of triggers. I just need to smell Pears soap, for instance, to be instantly transported to my childhood days. I recall feeling carefree and playing cricket with my cousins; I think of how I would spend hours listening to A R Rahman songs on my cassette player; and I also remember how breathlessly I would wait at the queue at the Landmark bookstore with my parents and brother on the day of a new Harry Potter book release. While you might not have been able to relate to any of these memories, it is likely that you knew exactly how I felt while I recalled them. We might all have wildly different nostalgic memories, but the feeling that these memories evoke is remarkably similar across individuals.

Pain with pleasure

As I recalled my childhood memories, a curious emotion welled up inside me. While a part of me experienced great joy at reliving those happy times, it was sobering to think that those days are never coming back. In fact, the word nostalgia derives its very name from the Greek words nostos, which means to return home and algos, which refers to pain. It is no wonder then — given the mishmash of feelings that it brings up — that nostalgia has often been dubbed a “bittersweet” emotion.

Nostalgia as an emotion has captured the imagination of writers and poets over the centuries and has been a source of bafflement and strife within the medical and scientific communities alike. Nostos, or homecoming, is a central theme in Homer’s play Odyssey, which describes the Greek hero Odysseus’ journey back home after the Trojan War. Homer, interestingly, portrays the hero’s nostalgia not as something that holds him back, but as a motivational force — his yearning for home helps him fend off all manner of negative forces that stand in his way, and also helps him develop creative solutions in the face of adversity.

Clinging or clanging?

Nostalgia came into the limelight only in the late 17th century, when Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term to describe an illness afflicting Swiss soldiers experiencing symptoms such as rumination, despondency, and anxiety. Physicians at the time came to the consensus that nostalgia was a neurological illness specific to the Swiss. They were, however, split on the cause — while Hofer attributed the symptoms of nostalgia to “traces of motherland that clung to their nerves”, others posited that the clanging of cowbells in Switzerland might have caused lasting eardrum and brain cell damage.

While it soon became clear that soldiers — and indeed civilians — of all nationalities experienced nostalgia, the emotion continued to be characterised as an illness until well into the 20th century. Psychologists and psychoanalysts treated nostalgia not as a neurological condition, but as a psychiatric illness similar to depression, and attributed early childhood trauma to the development of the disease.

Nostalgia is now viewed by scientists not as an illness, but as an emotion that could even be beneficial under certain circumstances. Also, rather than just being about one’s homeland, nostalgia often manifests itself in less specific ways and is a general longing for the past. Just as Odysseus used his fond memories of his homeland to give him the strength he needed during uncertain times, so too do all of us when we are faced with any difficult situation.

A remembrance that serves well

Children often like to laugh at how the elders in the family prefix every other sentence with “In my time…” or “Those were the days”, but let those very children grow older, they catch themselves unawares when similar sentences begin to pepper their own conversations with friends. It might be tempting, then, to think of nostalgia — for lack of a better and more politically correct term — as an “old people’s emotion”, but it seems that is not the case.

People have a propensity to nostalgia during any transitional phase — a teenager who just finished their 12th standard board exams and awaits their uncertain future at college might clutch at the happy memories of their school life for comfort; someone moving to a different city, or a new job, might also have the tendency to look back at a more stable, certain past. Unsurprisingly, research has shown that people who are lonely, or unsatisfied with their lives for any other reason, are more prone to fond trips down the memory lane.

This personal nostalgia, or autobiographical nostalgia, usually serves people well. People who lean towards the more nostalgic side have been found to be better able to cope with crises and are also more likely to seek emotional support for their problems. Apart from causing a decrease in depression and loneliness, engaging with nostalgic memories can also literally reduce pain by reducing levels of chemicals called pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are involved in pain pathways.

One only needs to be witness to conversations during a college reunion to realise the value that nostalgia holds in feelings of social connectedness. Indeed, very often, the only thread holding many old friendships together is a kinship born out of reliving shared memories. What happens when one of the people involved in the shared memory belongs to an outgroup — a different religion or nationality, say? Our tendency in such a situation is to feel warm and connected to the person from the outgroup, and studies have found that this connectedness can in turn generalise to the entire outgroup, and even reduce prejudice.

But, a double-edged sword

We have all likely experienced personal or autobiographical nostalgia, and possibly also reaped some of its benefits, but did you also know it is possible to experience nostalgia at the collective level? Shared memories can bring together not just small groups such as college friends, but entire states and nations. Remind any Indian who witnessed it of the time that India won the NatWest series in Lord’s in 2002, and they are going to sigh collectively and wax eloquent about Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh’s match-winning 130-run partnership.

Such collective nostalgia has been found not just to strengthen positive relationships within the in-group (it is no coincidence that we feel a swell of nationalistic pride when we witness a cricket match that India wins), but also result in a phenomenon called consumer ethnocentrism, or a belief that products made in our own country are superior to those made in other countries. Collective nostalgia can also promote people to sacrifice for their ingroups and motivate them to take collective action towards a common goal. It shouldn’t be surprising, given the power of nostalgia to optimise for ingroups, that it can be used as a tool to promote exclusion of outgroups. View speeches by any right-wing populist from anywhere in the world, and you will see this national nostalgia in full display.

Indeed, it has been found that those with a propensity towards national nostalgia are more likely to oppose immigrants across cultures. Scientists have also found a link between national nostalgia and a phenomenon called autochthony, or the belief that the first settlers in a country or region are the ones who deserve all the entitlements of the national group. “We came here first” is a common refrain, and one that people will go to any lengths to prove. A large study of Central and South Asian genomes, for instance, generated controversy in 2018 when it showed that South Asians today descended from a mix of local hunter-gatherers, Iranian-related groups, and steppe pastoralists hailing from Central Asia.

Scientists have described two distinct ways of looking at the past. Reflective nostalgia, which as the name suggests, is more analytical by nature, involves recognising that our longing for the past does not imply that everything was perfect at that time, and that there are aspects of life that have changed for the better. Restorative nostalgia, on the other hand, which sometimes rears its head during political speeches and rallies, idealises the past and aims to bring back an imagined golden age.

When I said “imagined golden age”, I meant it quite literally. Our memories of the past are hardly as accurate as we think they are. I like to recount a certain incident from my childhood to my friends and family. This account, interestingly, changes with each retelling — I add in a nugget here, a little detail there — and before long, the story is unrecognisable.

Mark Twain apparently said, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. This tenet is one that the human brain appears to take quite seriously. How is it reasonable to expect that our brains would have accurate memories of events that occurred decades previously?

The dangers of a ‘glorious past’

The way we recall our memories is less like pulling out a specific memory from a carefully ordered filing system, and more like retrieving a story out of disjointed aspects of an event that come together to form a coherent whole. When I close my eyes and think of my grandma, for instance, the image that comes to mind is a vague idea made up of not just a visual representation, but also of how I feel when I think of my grandma. The next time I interact with her, or when someone tells me something about her that I didn’t already know, this model is modified accordingly, and colours my mental representation of the person herself.

At the hands of an adept speaker or politician, then, our memories can be modified to suit the story that is intended to be told. Repeat “the golden era of the Vedic age”, or “Make America Great Again” enough times, and we start to believe that our glorious past was marred only by the foreign invasions that were ultimately responsible for our country’s decline, or that America was indeed greater in the past than it is right now. Forgotten are the significantly worse caste and gender divisions in the years past, or the way black people were treated in the US. History, after all, is written by those in power to suit their own narratives. The Union Home Minister might have unwittingly put his finger on the issue when he said “Putting together our history, embellishing it and rewriting it is the responsibility of the country, its people and historians”.

One of the most disturbing aspects of historical nostalgia is that it is possible for us, sometimes at the hands of an adroit politician, to be induced to feel nostalgic about a time that we have never experienced ourselves. I feel this almost romantic longing for a past long gone by each time I visit the Chennakeshava temple in Somanathapura, near Mysore. As I gaze at the wonderful carvings and geometric pillars built in the 13th century, I am always transported to an idealised imagined past. Never mind that life during those years, for the common man (and more so, woman) was unimaginably hard compared to life today.

As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has argued in his book Enlightenment Now, conditions such as extreme poverty and war have declined drastically over the course of history, and measures like prosperity, literacy and longevity have gone up.

With measure after measure showing human progress over the decades, what makes some people susceptible to feeling that life was better in the past? For one, just as personal nostalgia is used by people to cope with times of distress, historical or restorative nostalgia too appears to strike during times of uncertainty or change.

It is not just people who underwent the negative effects of a social catastrophe who are susceptible to historical nostalgia, however. Psychologists describe a phenomenon called dominant group status threat, which is a set of insecurities experienced by a group that has reaped the benefits of an unequal system in the past, but which now feels that its group status is being threatened by “inferior” outgroups doing too well. Such groups might also have a propensity towards viewing the past as a golden era — but was the past truly golden for people from all rungs of society?

Given how mutable our memories of the past are, we might do well to remind ourselves that our longing for a bygone era might have less to do with its resplendent nature and more to do with our own life circumstances and insecurities. While it might be fun and even useful to a certain extent to indulge in personal nostalgia, doing so in a reflective manner might be more productive in the long run. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to put our pasts under the scanner rather than merely glorify those aspects that make us most comfortable.

The author is a neuroscience PhD turned science writer who is fascinated by the workings of the brain and how we can ‘rewire’ it to our advantage.

The Mind’s Eye is a new column that aims to explore neuroscience in everyday life. It will appear once in two months.

Published 31 July 2021, 20:28 IST

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