Nostalgia: A Mental Time Machine
We don't want to return to our past; we want our past to return to us.
Posted May 6, 2014 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
The appeal of a time machine that would allow us to travel through time has fascinated us in story and film for over a hundred years. If you could travel through time in only one direction, would you choose to move forward or backward? Curiosity and faith in progress would encourage travel forward to enjoy adventures in a utopian future. Moving ahead might be inspired by a desire to discover how your life unfolds and ends. On the other hand, travel to the past would allow you to trace your roots, relive your glory days or visit with loved ones you have lost. Perhaps, some would even be tempted to try to rewrite the past to correct mistakes, prevent disaster or restore lost loved ones.
Would turning back time be driven by a desire to be with certain people, to be in old haunts or to reclaim favorite things? What we miss most about our past reflects the aspects of our lives that have had enduring value. Some things seem so important while we experience them, but their significance fades as they are replaced by activities or objects more relevant to a later stage in life. For example, during childhood, many aspects of school command our energy and attention and are a central part of our satisfaction with life, our achievements, and sense of identity. Winning a competition, earning an award, or being recognized for superior academic talent or athletic prowess mean so much at the time, and we think we will treasure such memories for a lifetime. Even ordinary parts of school life from passing notes in class to exchanging Valentine’s Day greetings feel memorable while they are ongoing. As time passes, however, their salience retreats as they are replaced by more engaging concerns such as career advances, house hunting, and establishing professional and personal relationships.
Other aspects of our lives retain their value or increase in significance with the passage of time. As a young child, we took it for granted that Mom or Dad would be with us when we were ill. When an older sibling protected us from a bully, we might have felt grateful or a little embarrassed that we couldn’t handle it on our own. Looking back, such moments have become priceless. We treasure not only situations in which we were the beneficiaries. We come to recognize the deeper meaning of how we listened to a friend disclose their confusion during their parents’ divorce, how we remained loyal throughout a tumultuous friendship, or how we comforted our family dog as he drew his final breaths. As a child we might have resented being asked to help with household chores for an elderly relative or having to listen to much-repeated tales of life long ago. But now we might wish we had a time machine so we could do it all again.
Research on nostalgia for one’s past has shown that as adults we tend not to miss most strongly our childhood heroes or heroines, religious activities, school, or TV shows or movies. On the average, people miss most not having to worry, loved ones, holidays, things we did, family, the way people were, and not knowing sad or evil things. Some aspects of life are so central they rank among the most missed throughout the stages of life. Similar to adults over the age of 30, even young children (4 to 11 years old) and teens (12 to 17 years old) report missing someone they loved and things they did from when they were younger. The priority of other aspects shift as we age. For example, whereas toys are among the things most missed by children and teens (4 to 21 years old), childhood toys are among the things least missed by adults (34 years and older). By contrast, the music of our past is not deeply missed until later in life (34 years and older). For the most part, the expensive gift that once made us ecstatic is not what we want now. We wish we could take that walk through the woods with Mom, Dad or our brothers and sisters again. We miss sitting around the family table and sharing stories, jokes or memories far more than expensive toys or presents.
Research suggests that if a time machine were possible many people would want to visit the time when they were young. But visiting doesn’t mean returning for good. We don’t want to live again as a child, live the lifestyle of a child, or live in the world as it was when we were children. We wouldn’t want to leave behind our smart phones or large screen digital TVs. We don’t want to have to go to school, do homework, or receive an allowance. When we reminisce nostalgically, we want to bring the best of our past into our present. If we could travel back in time, we would want to visit with those we loved and lost, but how could we bear to leave them behind and lose them yet again? We would love to restore to our lives now the best of our past—those we loved, our family, being able to do the activities we once did, the way people were, our innocence in not knowing sad or evil things, and not having to worry. Childhood reflects the enduring desire for the ideal—life without cruelty, suffering, betrayal, or loss. As children we experienced life replete with possibilities, with dreams full of hope and promise and the freedom to enjoy being a son or daughter, grandchild, sibling or niece or nephew without conditions.
Nostalgic reverie is like a mental time machine. We can indulge in reflection on the ideal from the vantage point of childhood. From our contemplation of the best of our past we can find what we should now retain, restore, and rebuild. When we visit our past we discover that we don’t want to be rescued by heroes; we want now to be the hero, to be in control, to overcome what needs to be defeated. Disney movies still appeal to us, because we yearn for the magic of the victory of good over evil, the ability to destroy boundaries and explore without limits. Nostalgia doesn’t trap us in the past as long as we use the best of our past to rediscover what will continue to be truly meaningful.
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