Song of the Longing Soul

High notes in life are markers to which you compare your current experiences.

Posted Jan 26, 2014

Early experiences later determine the ways in which you navigate through life, including the images you create that are based on your current longings. Desires are constructed with memories of positive experiences, as is your self-definition. Yet prior negative experiences, rather than positive ones, are most often implicated as having an impact on the present.

Imagine a time when everything seemed blissful. Perhaps there were a number of scenes in your early life when you felt immensely adored, pivotal moments that involved intense excitement felt in a relationship, or a series of times when pride was triggered in response to accomplishment. Such compilations of high notes in your life are markers. Consciously or unconsciously you compare your current experiences to them, and these high notes may create a script that motivates you as well as leaves you longing. We also can identify with our past selves, wanting to hold on to pleasure and gratification as though who we were in those moments in time is who we are always longing to be. Through memory, thought, and imagination, affect-laden scenes in our life--those where intense emotion is experienced--are co-assembled with present scenes together with those which are anticipated in the future in the process of psychological magnification.1 In earliest infancy, psychological magnification begins when the infant imagines a possible improvement in a scene that currently rewards him with excitement and enjoyment: “He is doing what he will continue to try to do all his life…to write, direct, produce, and promote the scenes in which he casts himself as hero,” according to the affect psychologist, Silvan Tomkins.2 

In a New York Times opinion piece, Todd May wrote: “A certain period in the arc of one’s life yields a meaning that illuminates it, makes it burn more brightly than perhaps one might have thought or had the right to expect, and then is over. One continues to live, but something has gone missing, it has gotten lost. And what is lost, what is missing, remains nevertheless, tugging at one’s world with its absence.”3

Nostalgia, commonly defined as a "yearning for the past," refers to the memories people have of past personal experiences, often from adolescence or early adulthood.4 Music is especially evocative of such soulful longing as it activates emotional memories. A preference for the music that was popular during your adolescence or young adulthood may not be a function of the music per se, but a consequence of the personal associations you have with it.5 Thus, simply a song can activate painful losses that were a part of your youth, but also joyful and exciting memories that incite longing.

Repetitive affective (emotional) patterns and themes that involve your most important concerns and unresolved issues may be revealed in certain autobiographical memories, which researchers, such as Singer and Salovey, refer to as “self-defining memories.”6 Such memories, they note, are identifiable by their affective intensity, vividness, and familiarity to the individual, and they may embody nuclear scripts or organizing metaphors for the individual’s personality. A script, according to Tomkins and McCarter, “is a minitheory…the scripts and theories which we develop are affect powered…They are entirely centered on what will make us happier or make us less sad.”7 Silvan Tomkins describes nuclear scripts as arising “from the unwillingness to renounce or mourn what has become irresistibly seductive and the inability to recover what has been lost. . . The self victimizes itself into a tragic scene in which it longs most desperately for what it is too intimidated to pursue effectively. . . Nuclear scripts are inherently involved in idealized defenses against idealized threats to idealized paradises."8

Thus, a relationship in the present can activate longing that motivates you to recapture pleasurable sensations of the past. Yet any obstacle to attaining that pleasure has a painful effect that amplifies longing, as it drags memories of what you want, based on the past, into the confusion of current disappointment. Emotion is the mechanism that prioritizes memory and your emotional response to a memory may be predicted from the relevance of that memory to attainment or non-attainment of your most important personal goals: you may use those memories to motivate your behavior either in a way that may encourage yourself to have what you desire or discourage yourself from activities that would lead to outcomes you would rather avoid.9 

Yet along with leaving you longing for the pleasurable moments that are equivalent to what was experienced in the past, memories define you. Antonio Damasio has noted that the construction of the self is built upon everything we do that is filtered through what we have been and want to do.10 Nevertheless, excessive longing can be self-defeating. Insight can play a constructive role if you can recognize that the suffering entailed in the renunciation of excessive longing is less that the price you are paying for “insisting on re-entry into a heaven which never quite existed.”11 

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Tomkins, S.S. (1977). Script Theory and the Quality of Life. Unpublished (Psychology Today Lecture) Manuscript:

2 See Tomkins, S.S. (1977, pp. 10-11).

3 May, T. (2013). The Weight of the Past. The New York Times, December 22, 2013,

Baumgartner, H. (1992). Remembrance of things past: Music, autobiographical memory, and emotion. Advances in Consumer Research, 19, 613-620.

5 Baumgartner, H. (1992), cited above.

Singer, J. & Salovey, P. (1993). Remembered Self: Emotion and Memory in Personality. New York: Macmillan.

Tomkins, S. & McCarter, R. (1995). What and where are the primary affects? Some evidence for a theory. In E.V. Demos, Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S Tomkins. New York: Cambridge.

See p. 8 in Tomkins, S. (1995). Script theory. In E.V. Demos, Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. New York: Cambridge.

9 Blagov, P. & Singer, J. (2004). Four dimensions of self-defining memories (specificity, meaning, content, and affect) and their relationships to self-restraint, distress, and repressive defensiveness. Journal of Personality, 72, 481-511.

10 Damasio, A. (2010). Self Comes To Mind. New York, Random House.

11 See Tomkins, S.S. (1977, p. 25).

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