"Paintbrush, Outdoor, Flower, Flowers, Sunlight" by PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Source: "Paintbrush, Outdoor, Flower, Flowers, Sunlight" by PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

Since its inauspicious beginnings in the 17th century as a medical term designating a pathological brain disorder, nostalgia has in more recent times come to be viewed as a purely positive emotional experience. When an old song or a familiar smell triggers a pleasant memory of an event in our past, most of us pause to savor the momentary rush of emotion until it fades, rather than running to the doctor for a cure. Our perceptions of nostalgia are so positive that advertisers and entrepreneurs spend millions of dollars each year trying to make us nostalgic because they know that we will spend millions of dollars to feel that way. And as good as nostalgia feels, recent research by psychologists and neuroscientists indicates that it is a largely guilt-free pleasure, offering many tangible benefits to our mental, social, and even physical well-being. One researcher concluded that we should try "nostalgizing two or maybe three times a week" to experience optimum benefits.

Knowing that nostalgia feels good and is good for us confronts us with an intriguing question: How do we do nostalgia? With a lifetime of assorted positive, negative, and neutral memories to draw from, how do we willfully experience those memories in such a way as to draw pleasure from them? In her classic fictional exploration of memory, To the Lighthouse, British novelist Virginia Woolf offers us a clue to how we might go about it.

A central scene of the novel features a painter named Lily Briscoe sitting in front of her canvas on the beach remembering an incident that occurred on this same spot when she last visited many years earlier. A man with whom she frequently quarreled was in an uncharacteristically light-hearted mood and she and he shared a rare moment of harmony in their otherwise unpleasant relationship: “This moment of friendship and liking—which survived, after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to refashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.” 

This passage and the broader portrayal of memory it helps to develop in the novel demonstrates a prescient understanding on Woolf’s part of our current conception of how human memory works.

Contrary to our subjective experience of it, episodic memory (memory of events rather than of facts, which is semantic memory) is constructive rather than reproductive in nature. When we retrieve the memory of some episode from our past, it feels to us as if we have simply called up a mental video file and hit the play button. A large body of research, however, indicates that we are not merely passive observers of such memories, but rather we construct them anew each time we retrieve them. Like the painter Lily Briscoe, we “refashion” the raw material of our autobiographical past to create the memories that we experience in the present, and thus stand in relation to our past much in the same position as an artist stands in relation to her canvas. We possess, in other words, a degree of creative control over our memories. How, then, do we shape this raw material into the pleasurable and beneficial experience of nostalgia?

The first and probably the most important consideration is the attitude with which we approach our material. Since nostalgia serves no immediate purpose besides providing pleasure (its secondary benefits notwithstanding), it is a fundamentally aesthetic memory experience, which means we should approach our material with the mindset of an artist. This entails a degree of artistic detachment that allows one to appreciate a subject for its own sake, without any consideration of personal usefulness.

To speak of “detachment” in regard to nostalgia may seem counterintuitive, since it is our own autobiographical memories that we are dealing with, but it is precisely the lack of such detachment that can take a potentially pleasant memory experience and turn it into the sort of pathologically unpleasant state of mind to which the term “nostalgia” presumably referred when it was first coined. 

Historian Svetlana Boym designated two distinct classes of nostalgia: “restorative” nostalgia, which seeks “a return to the original stasis, to the prelapsarian moment,” in essence attempting to relive a past moment in the present, and “reflective” nostalgia, which accepts the fact that the past is past, and meditatively embraces “the irrevocability of the past and human finitude.” The restorative attitude toward the past leads to a painful, unfulfilled longing—a sort of chronological homesickness—when we are inevitably confronted with the realization that time runs in only one direction and we can never actually return to the past. By accepting the irrevocability of the past, a reflective attitude allows us to appreciate our memories for what they are—mental recreations of past experiences—and to take aesthetic pleasure in our present experience of a memory without fretting over the fact that we can never actually relive that moment in time.

Once we attain an aesthetic distance from the past, realizing that our memories are not “real” but rather mental creations, we can fully embrace their constructive potentiality. Because our memories are constructed anew every time we retrieve them, they are notoriously unreliable records of the actual “facts” of our past. Where factual accuracy is called for—say, if we are giving eyewitness testimony in a criminal trial—this unreliability is terribly inconvenient. But because the “purpose” of nostalgia is pleasure rather than accuracy, we can allow our memory to shape itself in the manner that resonates most powerfully with the reward centers in our brain. 

In allowing our aesthetic purpose, rather than factual reality, to determine the specific content of our nostalgic memories, we are essentially following Aristotle’s advice in his Poetics that a writer must adhere to the “rule of probability or necessity” in shaping a literary work, including only those details that contribute to the overall purpose of the work, even if those details conflict with factual reality. A “probable impossibility” he says, is always to be preferred over “a thing improbable and yet possible.” When the purpose of remembering is nostalgic pleasure, calling to mind the most pleasurable details of a remembered experience is more aesthetically valid than recalling every minute detail of it just because it actually happened that way.

This is not to say that an aesthetic approach to nostalgia gives us license to fabricate from thin air memories that have no basis in reality. That would not be nostalgia but fantasy (a whole different genre of aesthetic mental experience). But if, for example, we catch a whiff of some tantalizingly familiar odor on the evening breeze that calls to mind a powerful memory, but we can’t quite decide whether it was the state fair we attended with our family when we were 10 years old or a little league baseball game we played in when we were 11, we should embrace the one that produces the greater rush of pleasure, whether or not it was that particular memory that we associate with the odor. We get no prize for correctly identifying the memory trigger, after all. The prize is the pleasure of the memory itself. 

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