The Good Old Days | Hidden Brain Is nostalgia an emotion that's bitter, or sweet? Psychologist Clay Routledge explains what causes us to feel nostalgic and how nostalgia affects us.
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Nostalgia Isn't Just A Fixation On The Past - It Can Be About The Future, Too

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Nostalgia Isn't Just A Fixation On The Past - It Can Be About The Future, Too

Nostalgia Isn't Just A Fixation On The Past - It Can Be About The Future, Too

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Depending on when you were born, you might have a special reaction to some of these songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, BE MY BABY")"

THE RONETTES: (Singing) The night we met I knew I needed you so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS")"

QUEEN: (Singing) We are the champions, my friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, THIS IS WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE WHEN THE DOVES CRY")"

PRINCE: (Singing) This is what it sounds like when the doves cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, WANNABE")"

SPICE GIRLS: (Singing) I want to, I want to, I want to, I want to, I want to really, really, really, want to zigazig (ph) ah (ph). If you want to be my lover...

VEDANTAM: Chances are at least one of those songs evoked a feeling in you, a sort of fuzzy feeling, maybe a sense of longing, maybe a memory popped up in your mind. Most likely, what you're experiencing is nostalgia. We take it for granted that nostalgia is an ordinary, harmless emotion. Nobody thinks you should go to a therapist for posting a photo from your childhood with the hashtag #throwbackthursday or if you have a weak spot for Froot Loops or Lucky Charms. But that's a relatively new way of thinking.

CLAY ROUTLEDGE: It started out very much as being considered a disease. And people even today, a lot of people will say, well, I'm not nostalgic because I think about the future.

VEDANTAM: Today on HIDDEN BRAIN, what exactly is nostalgia? And can nostalgia help us move forward in life or does it simply leave us stuck in the past?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Clay Routledge is a psychology professor at North Dakota State University. He's the author of Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource." Clay

ROUTLEDGE: Thank you for having me.

VEDANTAM: In your book, you describe the origin of the word nostalgia. You say that in the 17th century, a medical student noticed that Swiss soldiers fighting in the plains of Europe were experiencing a set of emotions and physical symptoms. Other physicians ran with this idea and they thought nostalgia was a condition unique to Swiss soldiers. They believed that the endless clanging of cow bells in the Alps triggered some kind of trauma to the brain.

ROUTLEDGE: Yeah, so there was a medical student named Johannes Hofer. And he coined this term nostalgia, which he described as a cerebral disease of demonic cause that originated from continuous vibrations of animal spirits throughout the middle brain. That's basically the beginning of the term nostalgia. Of course, that doesn't mean that was the first time people ever experienced it or even noticed it. But that was really the genesis of the study of nostalgia.

VEDANTAM: So we've obviously come a long way since those early conceptions of nostalgia. And you say that some of the people who've led the way were not researchers but marketers?

ROUTLEDGE: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the things that I think is really fascinating about this story, not just of what nostalgia is but kind of the history of how people explored. On the one hand, in the early years of scholarship on nostalgia, as we just discussed, there was this very disease-focused model. And then fast forward to, you know, the 1980s, which, of course, we're going from the late 1600s to the 1980s, and you see this more commercial-driven or marketing or advertisement-focused approach to nostalgia, which, of course, would paint a completely different picture of nostalgia because marketers don't think that people buy products that make them miserable.

They think people buy products that they enjoy and that make them happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Parents love to tell about when they were kids. It's called nostalgia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I had a Tonka Truck.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A mini Cabbage Patch Kid - I always loved dolls.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: A McDonald's hamburger Happy Meal will give you that nostalgic feelings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The summer that summers from here on will be compared to, where memories will be forged into the sand and then hung on a wall for years to come.

ROUTLEDGE: If you give people a list of products, things like movies or music or automobiles, people tend to have a preference for the products that were popular during their youth. And so people have this natural attraction to things from their past. That's how this got started. And then, yeah, they started to look at, well, if that's true, then inducing that feeling, that connection to the past should increase favorability towards products.

VEDANTAM: I want to take you back to a time a few years ago when your daughter was just starting high school. Like many parents, you felt proud, but you also felt some distress because your baby girl was growing up. Can you tell me what happened next?

ROUTLEDGE: My immediate response was a little bit existential dread, to be honest. It's like, how - where did all this time go? How do I already have a daughter that's graduated from high school? But then I subsequently went through and ran all the, you know, all the great memories we've had with her. And then I felt more, you know, happy. I felt more of a sense of meaning and accomplishment, that, oh, this is an important rite of passage and, no, things are going to be good. And so I had this experience that's very common, which is a little bit of loss but then this sense of reflection and then more of a - I kind of stabilized emotionally.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Clay hasn't limited his study of nostalgia to his own brain. He studied the minds of other people. He once conducted an experiment where he tried to put volunteers into different kinds of moods. Some volunteers read about cute polar bears, which was supposed to elevate their mood. Others read a neutral article about the solar system.

ROUTLEDGE: Which, of course, to some of us is kind of cool, but it's not the type of thing that gets most people, you know, super excited.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

A third group of volunteers read about the victims of a terrible tsunami. The idea was to put them in a negative mood. This last group of volunteers reported the highest levels of nostalgia.

ROUTLEDGE: Now, it's important to note that, I mean, this is - it's not - this doesn't mean that negative emotions are the only thing that triggered nostalgia. In fact, we know as the marketing researchers have done that you can instigate nostalgia very directly with stimuli that remind people of the past, like familiar smells or sights or music. So there's this whole, like, sensory and social type of stimuli that directly triggered nostalgia. But what we found fascinating with this emotion research is that there seems to be a class of triggers that are about negative events or life experiences or emotions that appear to motivate nostalgia for more of what we'd call a compensatory reason or, you know, psychological reasons that are about regulating the stress.

VEDANTAM: In other words, a psychological defense.

ROUTLEDGE: Yes, correct.

VEDANTAM: Now, you and others have found that nostalgia is extremely common, very, very widespread. But I think a lot of people don't stop to think very carefully about the details of what constitutes a nostalgic memory or a nostalgic experience. And I want to try and do that in the next couple of minutes. And I want you to actually tell me about a picture that you keep on your desk that shows you standing with your wife and two kids in front of a mural in London. Describe the photo to me, and then give me a play-by-play account of what images and memories the photograph produces in your mind.

ROUTLEDGE: Are you aware of this band Gorillaz?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROUTLEDGE: So in London, at least when we lived there, you know, on the south bank they had this really cool art that - so Gorillaz is - they have this graphic-novel-style art associated with their music. And so they had these murals that were just kind of neat. They looked very - you know, animated and comic booky (ph). And so there's this picture of us, you know, standing there in the south bank. Our daughter must have been around 6 and our son must have been around 4 or 5. What this picture really means to me personally is here we were - it was, you know, we were poor. We didn't have really any material possessions at the time because we were in grad school, so it seemed like there was nothing to lose.

And so you have this picture that in many ways I think encapsulates that, and that's I think what's so powerful in part about nostalgia is you have these snapshots of your life that capture these very, very rich and complex memories, these stories about yourself. And that one really to me is like here we are, we've got these small kids, we moved to England, we don't know anyone there, and we're having this great adventure. And it's an adventure for my wife and I, but it's also an adventure, you know, for our kids and for the whole family.

VEDANTAM: So there are a couple of things about this memory that stand out to me, you know, and I think they're revealing about what your research and other research has shown about nostalgia. First of all, there is this bittersweet element to your memory of that day. I mean, you're recalling the fact, for example, that you were poor, that, you know, you were dealing with small kids, that you didn't have any friends that you knew in London. So there are elements of the story that someone could hear and say this is a story of sadness and loss, but it's also, as you're telling it to me, this is also a story about a moment of family triumph, something that brought the family together. And I want you to talk about this idea that nostalgia has these two strains simultaneously, something that feels sad but something that feels triumphant and happy as well.

ROUTLEDGE: One of the things that I found very interesting about this research in nostalgia is you have these very complex, emotional experiences often involving great hardship and loss and struggle, but also, as you noted, there seems to be some kind of redemptive nature to them or triumphant nature to them. In fact, some of the best nostalgic memories that we've collected were from, when I was in England and we were doing this research, is we had a sample of older adults, and these were - these were older British adults who had, you know, were alive and were children, most of them, during World War II when Germany was bombing Great Britain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: There are 279,000 children still in London. Many are bombed out of their homes, all look tired, but they feel safe here, a good hundred feet below ground, and their spirits of fortitude are simply grand.

ROUTLEDGE: And a lot of these people had these nostalgic memories about serious family upheaval, their dad being sent away to war, them being sent to the countryside because London was being bombed, you know, families being separated. And, you know, on the one hand, you could say these are really, really, you know, bad, traumatic memories. But in nearly all of these memories that people, you know, wrote about for us they had this experience of triumph, of gratefulness, of thankfulness for these times because on the one hand, they were tough, but they also sort of stripped away all the nonsense of life and reminded them, you know, how precious it is and what's really important in terms of their family and their meaningful connections. And so I feel like this often happens a lot in nostalgia is you really start to get at the core of what people find personally valuable and meaningful. And a lot of times that means suffering or loss or hardship.

VEDANTAM: So I think what I'm hearing you say in some ways is that nostalgia might involve some amount of rewriting of the past. So, you know, we're seeing ourselves in some ways as the central protagonist of this movie. We're seeing, you know, the struggles and challenges we experienced but also the triumphs and the ways we overcame those challenges. And in some ways, these are - the journalist in me would say this might be misremembering the way things actually happened, but, of course, a psychologist would say this is exactly what all human beings need to do. We need to remember the kinds of things that we went through, and we want to tell ourselves stories about the kind of people we are and how we became this way. And some rewriting of history, some recollection of the facts that suits our image of who we are today, is what produces these nostalgic images.

ROUTLEDGE: To me, I see - it's almost like making a movie. You have all these memories that represent raw footage - right? - of all the filming that you've done. And of course, anyone who has seen and who's made a movie or watched a movie knows you don't go watch hundreds of hours of raw footage. That would be a horrible movie, right? You have an editing process, a process where the director and editors and people involved with the film, well, you know, will sort of shape and edit the movie in a way that tells the story that they want to tell or that features the most central themes in a narrative in a meaningful way. And, you know, we do that to some extent with our autobiographical memories as well.

So it's not the case that we're necessarily completely fabricating memories so much as we're selecting and kind of weaving these different memories into a meaningful self-narrative that helps us make some sense of our lives and our connection to others. Now, this doesn't mean it can't go wrong or that people don't have, you know, false memories. But I think a decent portion of this is healthy recollection that's not necessarily false but does involve a certain level of, you know, massaging the raw footage so to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When we come back, I'm going to talk to Clay about the effects of nostalgia. Is it a force for good or a force for bad? And I'm going to ask him about one of the most nostalgia-invoking presidential campaigns in recent history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will make America great again. God bless you. Thank you, everybody.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers, and Embedded is back. And we recently realized it's hard to assess a politician who has virtually no political record, but with Donald Trump, we tried anyway. And we wound up with stories and lessons from the record he does have in business and on TV. Listen on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts.

VEDANTAM: When Johannes Hofer came up with the word nostalgia over 300 years ago, he thought of nostalgia as a brain disease of demonic cause, but Clay Routledge has found that nostalgia may actually be good for us.

ROUTLEDGE: Yes. If you look within, you know, what we would refer to as normal populations, so these are research participants that don't have any particular vulnerability that might distinguish, you know, the way they recollect on the past, what you find is nostalgia seems to be generally a net positive experience that has a whole host of psychological benefits.

VEDANTAM: I suppose it's possible for people to argue, you know, if you spend excessive amounts of time ruminating about the past and living in the past, this could also be bad for you. I mean, isn't it possible that people who are spending huge amounts of time in the past - in some ways I think your research and other people's research are suggesting if distress causes people to become nostalgic, then people who are excessively nostalgic, could they not be people who are experiencing high levels of distress?

ROUTLEDGE: Yes. I mean, in fact, we find that, that characteristics like loneliness - so loneliness, which we all experience from time to time, but it's also a trait - like some people tend to be more lonely than others - are associated with nostalgia, as is neuroticism. So these negative emotional traits tend to be associated with nostalgia, but there's also reason to suspect that these experiences of nostalgia are helping people restore some sense of psychological well-being while people are experiencing these emotions.

VEDANTAM: Besides being an expert on nostalgia, Clay, you've spent a lot of time advocating for greater ideological diversity in the social sciences. You've made the case that more conservative voices need to be part of the conversation. I'd like to try and connect these two parts of your life, the researcher who studies nostalgia on the one hand and the person who's interested in conservative thought on the other hand. And I want to do it by talking about the 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

Lots of presidential campaigns talk about the future. They talk about how change is coming, about hope for the future. But Donald Trump very specifically turned his attention toward the past. He invoked a sense of nostalgia among followers, and he communicated the idea that America had seen brighter days and both he and his followers felt that they wanted to make America great again. I'm wondering whether the signs of nostalgia has any insights into the appeal of Donald Trump and the success of his presidential campaign.

ROUTLEDGE: Well, I think one thing that's important to distinguish is the difference between what we might call personal nostalgia and historical, or what some people call collective nostalgia. Now, a lot of the work that I've done, or nearly all the work I've done and pretty much everything we've talked about thus far, is about this idea of personal nostalgia, which is us revisiting memories from our own past, right, our own childhood or youth or whenever. Like, these are our personal memories. And that seems to be distinct from this more historical nostalgia, which you can imagine having nostalgic feelings for a period of time or for an idea that you never actually had any direct contact with.

So there are people - you know, to step outside of politics for just a second - there are people that have nostalgia for the 1920s. They just think everything about from the architecture to the fashion that everything is great, and they never, you know, they never lived in that time. And so they can't really trace it a personal or autobiographical experience. And so I think that's important.

What Trump seems to have done either by design or by just stumbling onto it was really latched onto this idea of historic nostalgia, that there's some kind of collective feeling of nostalgia that's beyond any individual experience that was about a time that perhaps was at least for some, you know, in their mind imagine that was better. Now, of course, that doesn't mean that it was. What matters is that, you know, he sold the idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I have to say, when I was young in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war. You remember.

You know what I hate? There's a guy totally disruptive, throwing punches. We're not allowed to punch back anymore. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were at a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks.

ROUTLEDGE: You know, I'd also add that it's not specific to Trump, that that's, you know, clearly the most recent example from our culture, but there is actually, you know, people that have looked into Soviet-era nostalgia, that there are people in Eastern Europe and Russia that have nostalgia for the Soviet Union, even if they are, you know, too young to really fully understand what was going on at that time. So this idea of historical nostalgia is definitely its own kind of beast, and I don't feel like as far as the science of it we have a - we really have a full handle on it yet.

VEDANTAM: So obviously, it's much harder to study collective nostalgia and shared nostalgia than it is to study individual nostalgia. You know, you can't bring countries into your lab and evaluate, you know, millions of people. But is it possible that at a collective level nostalgia performs the same function that it does at an individual level?

ROUTLEDGE: Yeah, I think that's a reasonable - a reasonable hypothesis. For example, there are - you know, people have noted that at - like, at the time of the, you know, following the economic recession in the United States you saw this peak kind of interest in nostalgia products, whether it was, you know, reboots of movies...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: On Friday, Batman returns - again. The Dark Knight

ROUTLEDGE: ...Or, you know, those types of - you know, those types of cultural consumption products. Now, these aren't experiments, of course, and they're not even really, you know, scientific - they're - in the sense that no one tried to systematically study this. But there was, you know, some acknowledgement that it seems like in times of collective upheaval, just like times of personal upheaval, people seem to turn more to nostalgic feelings. So I think that, you know, that's certainly a - certainly a reasonable possibility.

VEDANTAM: We talked earlier in our conversations about how our recollections of our past might not necessarily be fabrications, but they are selective edits, in some ways, of our history. So, you know, you have that photograph on your desk of you standing with your family in front of the London mural and, you know, you remember the good parts of that history and your story. You know, you don't necessarily remember that maybe that morning maybe you weren't the best dad that you could have been. Maybe you were impatient or you were short-tempered. I mean, you don't remember that part of it. You remember just the fact that you were facing a challenge with your family and, you know, you were on a big adventure.

And I'm wondering is the same thing possibly true at a collective level as well, which is, you know, we have these nostalgic memories, but is it possible there's an element of them that really is insidious, especially at a cultural level? When you see the debate over Confederate memorials, for example, and the nostalgia that people feel over Confederate memorials, many people will say this is tradition and this is nostalgia. And there are equally many people on the other side who say you're remembering a history that essentially has whitewashed, you know, the issue of slavery or the issue of race relationships from that memory and replaced it with this relatively grand and benign idea of tradition. How would you respond to that?

ROUTLEDGE: Yeah. I think that's a - I think that's a fair point, even with the example of personal nostalgia. Nostalgia can be a source of inspiration and a stabilizing force as well. But you shouldn't let it blind you or shouldn't be the only dimension through which you think about these issues because you're absolutely right. It's part of our psychological immune system to, you know, more easily forget the negative features of the past, either through this sort of revisionist process that you mentioned or even through just natural recollection.

I mean, a lot of negative memories fade from, you know, our awareness faster than positive memories, and this seems to be adaptive for us personally moving forward in life. But it also biases us towards, you know, not necessarily doing a good job of thinking about the complexities of the whole picture and thinking about other people's experiences, which may be, giving the Confederate example, vastly different than our own. And so I do think that though nostalgia certainly has a number of positive benefits that we shouldn't let ourselves be intoxicated by nostalgia because there are some real dangers associated with that.

VEDANTAM: Clay and I wrapped up our conversation by talking about what he said was the most surprising finding about nostalgia.

ROUTLEDGE: Nostalgia seems to actually orient people towards the future. And so part of what seems to be going on is you experience some kind of distress, which kind of makes you shrink a little bit from pursuing goals and from the future. Like, it does kick you into more of this defensive mode. And then you bring to mind these nostalgic experiences that they don't only make you feel good; we now have evidence that they actually make you feel optimistic and hopeful about the future. And so that in turn seems to mobilize people, particularly in the social domain. And now we have, you know, a number of studies that show this both in terms of people reporting that they're more optimistic about the future, more inspired, but also behaviorally too in terms of people actually going out and wanting to interact with and meet people after they've engaged in nostalgia.

VEDANTAM: So at one level, actually, this is surprising, but as you're talking just now, I realize this also makes perfect sense. I mean, people are nostalgic in every culture and, as far as we can tell, have always - you know, all historical reports suggest that nostalgia, it's very widespread. And when you see something that's as widespread as nostalgia seems to be, it's reasonable to draw the conclusion this is performing some kind of adaptive function and not just helping people feel better but in actually being able to function better.

ROUTLEDGE: Nostalgia has had this - historically had this stigma, as we talked about it. It started out very much as being considered a disease. And people - even today, a lot of people will say, well, I'm not nostalgic because I think about the future. You know, I'm not the type of person that likes to fixate or get stuck in the past. And I think what they're missing when they say that is there is a big element of nostalgia that isn't about us retreating to the past. It's about us pulling the past forward to the present and using it to mobilize us, to energize us to take on new challenges and opportunities.

VEDANTAM: Clay Routledge is a psychology professor at North Dakota State University. He's the author of Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource." Clay

ROUTLEDGE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman, Parth Shah and Renee Klahr. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Our unsung hero this week is Tommy O'Keefe. Tommy's a programmer who works on the technical side of NPR's website, and he was on call late one night recently when we were having problems publishing our podcast. We couldn't figure out why the audio wasn't showing up in the podcast feed, and, to put it mildly, we were starting to freak out. Tommy quickly figured out what the problem was and fixed it. That would have been more than enough to win our gratitude, but we were impressed by his bedside manner. He fixed the problem while chitchatting about other stuff. In other words, he held our hand. Thanks, Tommy. We have your number on speed dial for the next crisis. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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