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Nostalgia: Memory is at the Heart

Nov 01, 2015 08:00AM ● Published by Jason Huddle

Nostalgia: Memory is at the Heart

Close your eyes. Now think back to a time that makes you smile: sights, sounds and smells. My “smilingest” memories revolve around my grandma’s house…homemade chicken soup, a wooden toy piano and racing our cousin Mike’s Matchbox cars in the upstairs hallway.  

According to, “The feeling of nostalgia is given life by symbols, by an object or a feeling, or something that represents a moment past. For many, nostalgia is a wonderful feeling, a combination of joy of what once was and a twinge of regret that it is no longer. That is healthy nostalgia.”

Defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations,” it’s usually a positive, optimistic emotion.

“This optimism is related to two other factors,” Dr. Art Markman, Ph.D., says. “First, nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others. This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves. That increase in self-esteem then increases feelings of optimism.”

And while that optimism may be temporary, the memories are not. What’s ironic is that nostalgia was originally labeled as a neurological disease. Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student in 1688, noted the homesickness experienced by Swiss mercenaries fighting out-of-country.

“Military physicians attributed this homesickness to ear and brain damage from the constant clanging of cowbells. Recognized symptoms included pining for Alpine landscapes, fainting, fever and even death,” writes Dr. Neel Burton M.D. By the 19th century, it was considered a type of depression.

Thankfully, nostalgia today is viewed as a means to go beyond the confines of our four walls. True, these emotions are often prompted by loneliness, boredom or sadness, but they also serve to remind us that we each have a personal story that’s firmly planted in time. This, in turn, calls up memories of love and protection, and improves our mood.

“It is a strange thing: a vivid memory from the distant past, haunted by people who have grown up or grown old or are no more, doing things that are no longer done in a world that no longer exists. And yet it all seems so vivid in our minds that we can still picture the glint in their eye or the twitch in the corner of their mouth,” Burton says. “Sometimes we even say their names under our breath as if that could magically bring them back to us.”

Columbia’s Professor Morris Holbrook says, “We believe that there is a critical period during which we tend to form strong preferences for whatever objects we frequently encounter – say, music, movies, celebrities, clothing styles, automobile designs or whatever. That our attachments to objects of nostalgic significance are determined in our formative years – from childhood to early adulthood – is a worthy observation. As such, these objects suggest a return to the safety of home.”

Sigmund Freud, however, believed that childhood memories are inaccurate, and possibly don’t exist at all. Instead, we create memories of memories, distorting them to produce an ideal past. Feelings are reinterpreted. Psychologists have termed this as Rosy Retrospection. Individuals try, at all costs, to recreate a nostalgic paradise that’s unattainable and may never have existed at all. This can lead to chronic worrying, anxiety and depression.

Age may play a role in our retrospection as well. John Tierney, author and science columnist, says, “Research has shown that levels of nostalgia tend to be high among young adults, decline in middle age and rise again during old age, potentially highlighting another function of nostalgia: its ability to help cope with transitions.”

And we don’t want to dwell on the negative. After all, Christmas and Hanukkah are just around the corner and we’ll be thrust into a period of looking back, recalling the holidays spent with family and the memories created.

We may also take things from our past and make them a part of our holidays now and in the future. Hopefully, many of us still have the objects, recipes and music that take us back to a more innocent time, that we and those who come after us can enjoy for years to come.

Written by: Kim Cassell

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