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Why Do We Feel Nostalgia?

Rachael started this blog as an anime review blog in 2010. It has since branched out into other topics.

Always remember what a pain in the ass Furby was.

Always remember what a pain in the ass Furby was.

We all know that nostalgia is a skewed way of thinking about the world. People always seem to prefer movies, shows, music, technology, games, etc. they remember from their childhood or teen years. I'm guilty of this too, feeling a lot of nostalgia for anime from 1995 to 2005, when I first got into anime from ages 5 to 15, starting with Pokemon: Indigo League. Or, as it was called back then, just Pokemon. I still feel this excitement and warmth when I watch old episodes or Pokemon: The First Movie.

But, I also know this isn't rational. Lots of great episodes of Pokemon came out in the later seasons of the show. I stopped watching after the Orange Islands arc, but the show kept going. And even though characters I liked, Brock and Misty, were now gone, new characters introduced were, by all indications, fine. These characters were still liked by many fans. And many of us original Pokemon fans have a bias towards the first generation of the games, even though I felt that the second and third generations created good improvements.

So, what is nostalgia, and why do we feel it? How can we feel warm and fuzzy about things we're nostalgic about, even when we know that bias toward them isn't rational? Is it okay that I never liked any Digimon after the second season? If you still do your 90s aerobics tape, are you some kind of bad person for not giving newer ideas a chance? And am I doomed to filter out recent things in favor of older things more and more as I get older?

The past is as elusive a dream as the future. Always distorted, always yearned for, and always seen as better days.

— Elite Daily: The Science of Nostalgia

The Psychology of Nostalgia


The latest theories about memory suggest that we construct, rather than recall, memories. The way we construct our memory might be changed based on later information we learn or external context clues. When we're remembering old things in a nostalgic way, we're filtering out bad things about the past and focusing on the good. Marketing might also play a role here, as nostalgia is often used as a selling point for "retro" themed products. Not to mention the ugly slush pile of sequels, reboots, and 80s and 90s references shoved into stories like Ready Player One and Stranger Things, among others. It's no wonder we get nostalgic when a lot of media is actively trying to cram nostalgia down our throats.

In this psychology paper, Alan R. Hirsch says nostalgia is not a specific memory, but an emotional state we attach to a certain time. He says that, "Idealized past emotions become displaced onto inanimate objects, sounds, smells and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions." A lot of people idealize the past due to perceived pleasant feelings associated with it. This is a lie, because we're not remembering bad times or struggles. For example, I was traumatized by bullying during the years 2000 to 2004, which included harassment, ostracization, death threats, being told to kill myself, and being beaten up by boys who were much bigger than me, etc. But I do not think about that when I feel nostalgic for media from that time. If anything, it makes me feel more intensely nostalgic about the good things from that time, because they were what kept me sane and from killing myself.

Hirsch also says that the mechanism of nostalgia can become a major driving force for our behaviors. It explains for example why abuse victims might end up with another abusive partner after leaving the first. Essentially, they're comforted by what they know and remember, and they might filter out the negative experiences of the abuse, fondly yearning for the positive qualities of their abusive ex partner. You see this happen in Watchmen when the aging former Silk Spectre, the current one's mother, expresses nostalgia for when she was a super-heroine. But during that time, she was also raped. She says that as you get older, you remember everything more fondly, even horrible things like that! I'm not so sure I believe her. I think we feel nostalgia through ignoring the bad things, not romanticizing our own past abuse.

Nostalgia as a driving force behind a lot of human behavior can explain why some people get stuck in all kinds of negative behavioral patterns. They might be a racist because their parents were, believing in feel-good appeals to tradition. People tend to resist change when they feel nostalgic.

The conservatives in the US tend to promote nostalgia about the 1950s, which they see as an ideal time period for morals and Christianity dominating policy. But that rosy picture of the 50s people get from sitcoms and movies is not the complete and accurate story of that decade. It was also a time where abortions still happened, but they were much more likely to kill women. It was a time when women were sticking their heads in ovens and popping pills because being a housewife and not being allowed to have a career outside the home was unfulfilling. It was a time of racial segregation, when the voting rights and other rights of African-Americans were suppressed. It was a time when racism was expected and normal. People also smoked a lot. Also, despite the insistence that it was some kind of goody-goody moral time, people still had sex and there was still violence. So many bored housewives were doing the milkman that it became standup comedy fodder for decades after milkmen stopped existing. There were pornographic movies, because obscenity laws never really stop people from making them, and it's easy to maneuver around their enforcement. And the world was captive to fear that nuclear war would destroy the entire planet, and the US was afraid that communists were lurking behind every door. And despite all of this shit, conservatives are still able to promote the time period as idyllic and representing values to be emulated.

So, never underestimate the power nostalgia can have to sway our decisions and influence our behavior. You have to be aware of that, that your pleasant memories might end up working against you. People talk about good and bad nostalgia, and you have to be wary that one does not become the other for you. For example, I love the 90s, but I know they were behind on many political and social issues. People should always be trying to improve society. Keeping everything the same and clinging to old ways that no longer serve us best is not productive for society. It's also not best on a personal level, to be stuck in the past and never try anything new.


Should We Be Trying Harder To Remove This Bias?


Nostalgia is essentially a cognitive error. And I feel that, as a media critic, I should try to not let nostalgia get in the way of my assessments. That is, I should try not to over-rate something from my "golden period" of 95-05, and I shouldn't under-rate something more recent. I do tend to find it harder to get into newer anime, and I prefer the art style of older anime.

When I first went to conventions, I couldn't get why people were into 70s and 80s anime; it all looked overly masculine and ugly to me. But, to other people, that was the time when they first got into anime. Similarly, I should recognize that many of my readers will have gotten into anime in recent years. Therefore, their favorite shows are likely to be the ones that came out recently.

I've even seen people call shows I consider recent "classics", and it makes me cringe. I want to yell, "That's only five years old!"

But, if you're 18, five years ago you were 13. So, much will have changed in your life during those five years, while, since I'm 30, I haven't changed as much in the same amount of time. Our perspective will always be changed by how old we are.

Ways to Remove This Bias:

  • Recognize it for what it is.
  • Remember the bad times and things you don't miss about your past.

For example, in the 90s there was very little recognition that girls could have autism, and because of that, I missed getting diagnosed in school. I suffered a lot from problems of communication and lacking a social instinct, but there was no diagnosis, which meant there were no resources available to help me. Or any accommodation. And since the onus was on me to try to fit in better, I got a lot of bullying, which I interpreted as being my own fault.

  • Recognize the good about recent things, and try out current trends with an open mind.

This is kind of what I feel will make you a "cool old person" when you get older. You shouldn't try to copy teenage slang or fashion, to the extent that you're trying to be a perpetual teenager. Us 90s kids will remember a Daria episode about that

Celebrating and Indulging Your Nostalgia (Within Reason)

But also, in moderation, I don't see what's wrong with embracing your nostalgia. You are going to be a representative of a particular time period as you get older. I don't mind occasionally pulling out my cassettes, from a time when Will Smith was a rapper and the Spice Girls promoted a brand of positive, upbeat, and empowering pop.

Another thing I like to do is go back and watch things that came out when I was a kid or teenager, but that I either didn't get a chance to watch or couldn't watch due to my age. For example, I only recently bothered to watch The Butterfly Effect and (the original) Nightmare on Elm Street. I watched Scary Movie at age ten, it was rated R but my older cousin took me to see it. But I get more of the humor now. Especially now that I'm able to watch those R-Rated horror movies my mom didn't want me to watch as a kid. So now, I know what it's making fun of, and I understand the more sexual jokes. My first experience of the movie, obviously, was all about laughing at the sight gags and the "Wassup!" scene. Which yes, everyone was copying for at least a full month after the movie came out.

To me, it's incredibly fun to try this stuff out, because it's like exploring hidden rooms in an old haunted mansion that used to be locked. Now I can watch Moulin Rouge and not feel awkwardly confused, or afraid to let on what I did know, about the sex stuff. Also, that movie isn't a great introduction to sex for a naive 10-year-old whose only previous "experience" was witnessing dogs doing it. But I guess it wasn't supposed to be educational. Anyway, I used to feel that Hollywood was making jokes above my head that I couldn't understand. Now, I get to go back to the same pieces of media, able to get all the jokes. And to understand all the sex-related drama. It's a good feeling.

There was just... so much... teal...

There was just... so much... teal...

So, is nostalgia always bad? I don't feel like it is. It is a cognitive bias, and if you want to be a true critical thinker when you analyze media, it won't help you. But it's a good way to have some casual fun from time to time. Just remember to give recent things a chance, and to recognize that the nostalgia filter is an error that clouds your thinking. But if you want to groove to your disco records, or dress up in an 80s-style Halloween costume that's really made from your old wardrobe, just go ahead now.

© 2020 Naomi Starlight

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