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Musings on Nostalgia

“One is not nostalgic for the past the way it was, but for the past the way it could have been.” –  Svetlana Boym

I remember when I tried to remember something I couldn’t remember.

This occurs more often than I would like.

That one restaurant there.

That one book here.

Life is lived in quick succession these days–one event after another.

We don’t care to remember because the event is captured somewhere—in print, photo, or video.

It surprises me that I can remember anything at all. I don’t need to.

Or maybe not.

Did people share this sentiment during the transition from Homerian oratory to the written word, where reams of poetry memorized by heart can be memorialized on a surface?

What about the Gutenberg Press in the 15th century, democratizing the written word?

Or the capture of sound vibrations and pixelation of our existence for audiovisual communication?

And what of the digitization of our words?

When writing down a thought, I realize I am putting it down in a place it has never been before.

Sure, these thoughts and their many forms have been around for millennia.

Yet, in this time, in this place, they exist.

In the past, most of these collections of words would exist never to have meaning outside of their creation of the moment.

It’s incredible to think about the knowledge we’ve lost over the years.

Now, they can theoretically live forever because of the internet.

Each technological leap reduces our need to remember.

What will our brains do with the surplus space?

One age-old adage warns, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.”

For those less philosophical, there’s Parkinson’s law: time expands to fill the space allotted for a task.

No worries. There are forests of content. We cut through the thick foliage of effortless entertainment, cute photos, mind-numbing debates, and everything in between.

The forest grows thicker and thicker by the second.

The adventure can be enjoyable and temporarily memorable.

Especially if there is a feeling of nostalgia attached.

How many once-popular things do we forget only to go ”Oh” at their reemergence, then forget again?

I can’t help but have a warm feeling when I hear Party in the USA. I am transferred at lightspeed to dorm room pre-games and dingy basements, testing the limits of my youthful immunity.

It is believed that nostalgia is connected to how the brain experiences memories, how we reflect and feel about those memories, and the reward, or how the memory is processed, in our brain.

Looking at the brain as a storyteller, the hippocampus retrieves memories; the amygdala frames them with emotion. The prefrontal cortex and cortical structures like the anterior (ACC) and posterior (PCC) cerebral cortex help weave these memories into a story.

The fine mechanics of nostalgia are a mystery for another day.

Our media landscape offers a unique experiment in nostalgia. It is on-demand and at our fingertips.

Most of us can look at our phones and see curated photos from yesteryear curated by Apple and Google for our engagement, I mean, enjoyment.

What if less space between the past and present doesn’t allow the space to create nostalgia, and we end up with something new?

Nostalgia can be an intoxicating substance. A little in moderation is good and can have some benefits—like Cabernet Sauvignon allegedly. Sometimes. We keep going back and forth on that one.

Too much, and it distorts reality, trapping us in loops of what was, disconnecting us from the present.

Vincent Van Gogh delved deep into the power of nostalgia for his childhood Netherlands home and the Dutch Golden Age during his periods of creativity, and he retreated to it in his mental anguish.

The novelty of the present can become scary.

Nostalgia can create perversions of the past that never were to create a future that shouldn’t be.

Overall, life has improved for humanity over the years.

It sounds trite saying so amidst the flux we find ourselves within the past few years.

But consider our unparalleled access to the world, each other, and ourselves.

And it’s getting better.

One cannot imagine the sanitation in Britain during the Renaissance as much as we want to make jousting a thing, smelling smells that are possibly extinct to this world.

Or how about the start of the Twentieth Century, when under ten percent of homes had electricity and lamps heated by kerosene or pure circadian rhythm living was the norm?

Our mental highlight reels play soothing melodies of the past.

But we don’t want times back like they were.

We want an idealized version of those past times that melds where we are, plus the potential for more.

There’s a lot to be thankful for, yet there’s room for improvement.

We have the knowledge of the past, embracing the future and its uncertainty with optimism.

We may not know our destination, but we can determine where we don’t want to go.


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