The Two Faces of Nostalgia

I posted a blog recently entitled “Life is a Series of Close Calls,” where I discussed the beneficial role of reminiscing as we age.  Shortly after that, I happened to read about new research concerning the positive aspects of nostalgia in relation to pain perception.  Scientists subjected participants to a modest pain stimulus—heat stimulation—and then asked them to rate their perceived pain while looking either at “old cartoons, childhood games or retro candy” or at more modern images.  The participants that looked at “nostalgic” photos reported significantly less pain, and their response was validated using MRI brain scans.  The purpose of the study was to find new ways of managing chronic pain without drugs.  “Nostalgia is a predominately positive emotion that people easily perceive in their lives,” one of the researchers said.

I thought this was all quite interesting.  Apparently our brains and body have evolved to cope with distress by focusing on happy memories.  It seems that the thalamus—an organ that is part of our endocrine system—is involved in this response, so this capability is built deeply into our bodies.  Many recollected stimuli from the past can product this effect—smells, sounds, old movies, the taste of certain foods that remind you of childhood.  This made me think of the 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman, in which two prisoners (one of whom is being tortured) comfort themselves by remembering scenes from a romantic wartime movie from the 1940s.  

This powerful ability of nostalgia to manage pain points to an obvious reality: human beings throughout their history have had to cope with frequent physical, emotional, and psychological pain.  We probably couldn’t have survived as a species without some way to shield ourselves from the horrors of war, injury, disease, starvation, and the multitude of torments that afflict us.  Even though the modern world offers pharmaceutical remedies from the worst physical pain, drugs can lead to another kind of pain, which we have seen here in America in the tremendous death toll from opioid abuse.  No matter how you look at it, reality is hard. The comedian Lily Tomlin, in her persona as Trudy the Bag Lady, used to say, “I tried reality once, and found it highly overrated.” The joke works because Trudy the Bag Lady speaks for all of us.

Everywhere, no matter what the circumstance, people suffer.  It is useful to know that nostalgia helps, and that its benefit is validated by science, but there is another, second face of nostalgia that is not so beneficent.  Propaganda and advertising are two areas where nostalgia is used to manipulate and control people, sometimes with unsavory results.  One communications scholar has written, “[in nostalgic communication] a speaker highlights a comparison between a more favorable, idealized past and a less favorable present.”  Nazi propagandists constantly referred to a fictional past where “Nordic” people, especially Nordic men, were happy, prosperous and strong, compared to the difficult situation of the Germans after World War I.  And more recently in this country we keep hearing the slogan, “We want our country back.”  This phrase never had any resonance for me—I used to wonder what it meant, and what kind of country I was supposed to want back—but for those to whom it was directed the slogan was a powerful nostalgic motivator for dramatic political change.  I remember reading about a woman who had just come from a political rally where “We want our country back” was the prominent message, and who said, “It felt so wonderful to be in that crowd, it reminded me of the happy Fourth of July parades when I was a child.”

Advertisers learned a long time ago how to sell a product by tying it to a pleasant childhood memory.  It’s not hard to find such ads—as this article by Karla Hesterberg illustrates. Spotify, she writes, uses the characters Falkor the dragon and his boy companion Atreyu from the hugely popular movie The Never Ending Story to sell its catalog of old songs.  The Australia tourist board sells vacationing in Australia using scenes from the movie Crocodile Dundee.  And Target uses a 2-minute compilation of Star Wars movie clips to motivate buyers to check out their toy selection.  Hesterberg goes on to say, “The key to nailing nostalgia is to understand what motivates your audiences, how they were raised, and where their deepest interests lie.” 

 It may be old news that advertisers and politicians manipulate us shamelessly for their own ends, but it is still important to be conscious and alert about what is being done to us—otherwise we can become pawns in someone else’s agenda.  Nostalgia does have two faces; what they have in common is our deep-seated need to avoid pain and keep life as pleasant as possible for ourselves.  But as Trudy the Bag Lady so aptly illustrated, we cannot shield ourselves from reality all the time.  Better to develop strong psychological muscles to face reality as much as we can, so that whatever happens we are not fooled by the agendas of other people, corporations, or political movements.