In Defense of Nostalgia

I’m a bit of a pack rat. Once something enters my possession I have a really tough time letting it go. Long after it’s outlived any sort of seeming utilitarian value, I’ve still got it. I’ve got vhs tapes that not only will I never watch again, I can’t watch again, since I don’t own a vcr. I have cassette tapes that have a similar useless role. I’ve boxes of Star Wars toys. I have all sorts of nick knacks that have come into my possession over the years that not only don’t have any practical value, it’s arguable they never did. I have so many books and movies that friends who help me move often leave with a new found acceptance for the practice of book burning. Some people say you should live without any ties to material possessions, that material goods replace the value of real valuable experiences in life. But material possessions interact causally with our conscious states, themselves causing us to have certain experiences, and allowing for interactions not possible without them. I want to argue that these things all play a valuable role in human conscious experience, particularly my own!

What do I mean? The point I want to make about nostalgia rests heavily on two general points having to do with memory. One regarding the relationship between memory and the external world, and another having to do with the relationship between memory and consciousness. I want to make a caveat, I’m discussing nostalgia more in the sense of nostalgic items and their role in our experience, but not so much the idea of nostalgia as a yearning for the past, particularly not in the sense that the past is often idealized when discussing nostalgia.

Memory and the External World

Not only can we remember what we had for breakfast and our social security numbers; we can remember events that happened decades ago, we can remember plot lines from countless books and movies and we can remember long and complicated directions. But our memory isn’t perfect. We can’t remember everything. We forget entire episodes of our lives, we forget aspects of episodes, we alter and change our memories as time goes on, and often times our very perception of an event and the memory that is formed do not correspond to reality.

But we humans have done this really wonderful thing; to a degree, we have figured out a way to externalize our memories. I don’t mean that the actual memory is stored outside our heads (though we do this in many ways as well), but that many of the objects we create serve in a way as cues to remembering. Sort of like how sometimes you forget the lyrics to a song, but once someone gives you the first few words, or once someone hums the tune, you’re able to access this memory that was out of your reach a second ago. Or when you see a landmark, you remember the next set of directions. I don’t have to explicitly remember every event that ever happened to me. I can take a picture of it, and later I can look at that picture and though it is just an object out there in the world, it serves a causal interactive function, it acts directly on my neurophsyiological state and helps put my brain in states it would not have been able to achieve otherwise.

So while I might never watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie on VHS ever again (or really, ever again in general), owning that VHS tape allows me to, every once in a while, pick it up, and be helped (or forced, depending on your perspective) to remember something I might not have been able to think about otherwise. I can remember the movie itself, I can remember the time in my life when I really enjoyed the movie and would watch it all the time. The same is true of my cassette tapes, of my old high school cross country stuff, and of toys I used to play with when I was a kid. But there’s more than just the cue itself that makes nostalgia worthwhile, it’s also how it acts on your conscious experience.

Memory and Consciousness

We now know that memories are not like files stored on a hard drive. And the idea that what’s happening when you remember something is in some way you accessing a memory, is extremely problematic. I’ve spoken about this before (particularly here), but there is no separate you and a separate memory, there is just you in a particular mental state that we call remembering. Your consciousness, your subject experience, emerges from the same neuronal firing, that we want to say “stores” your memory. From the standpoint of the brain, what do you think the difference is between experiencing something, and remembering that same thing? It’s not like the universe puts a time stamp on you at any given moment, making that moment in time unique. Your subjective experience at any given moment, is just that, a subjective experience. Your mental and emotional state, your current neurophysiology, defines that moment in time. If at another “time” you put yourself in a similar state, the actual time stamp of the universe is not relevant to your current conscious state. Yes…I’m saying that memory is a form of time travel, all be it a very limited one. And sure there are caveats. A later version of yourself has been changed by your subsequent experiences, your neurophysiology has been altered, it’s not really possible to put yourself in “the same exact state”. And the fact that your actual sensory systems aren’t being stimulated when you remember something also changes the causal processes, but hey, without building a time machine, this is the closest we’re going to get.

I think it’s likely that we’ve all heard a song and been transported back to the time we first heard that song, feeling like we were that younger person again. In a certain sense, the reason I enjoy nostalgic items is that they alter my conscious experience, they transport me to another time, and it should go without saying that I gain pleasure from that (I tend not to look at things that transport me to really awful times in my life, but it would be interesting to think about the merits of that). So if you couple the role that the object has in serving as a cue, and the nature of remembering and conscious states, nostalgic items serve an indispensable role in directing my states of consciousness to places that would either be impossible, or just extremely difficult to get to without the object. In this sense it is not the material object itself that I am tied to, but the causal role that object plays in my experience.

There are times when I am looking for a movie to watch, or after I have just finished a book and am looking for a new one to read, where I just survey my libraries for a time. Looking at different titles one after the other and transporting myself with each new cue. Not only remembering the stories and ideas contained within the book or the movie, but also the time or times I read or watched it, what else was going on in my life at the time, how it affected me, the people who I shared those experiences with, etc…A few hundred years ago, none of this would be possible.

Is the take away from this that we should spend all our time looking at things that bring back happy memories? No. But is there a function that nostalgia serves beyond simply giving us momentarily pleasurable experiences? I think so. But that’s a post for another time. I’ll just mention that for those who have been reading some of my ethics posts, you’ll notice that I tend to have  a future oriented approach to ethics. While your experience is always happening in the present, and may be of the past, it can only possibly have a causal effect at some future point in time. Whether seconds, minutes, or days. My subjective conscious experience can have no causal consequences for the past, and given that synaptic plasticity is always taking place, and that brain activity is an active ever flowing process, what I think about in the now necessarily affects what I will think about in the future, who I will BE in the future. So whether we know it or not, simple acts of reminiscing necessarily affect (and to a certain degree, effect) the kinds of people we will become. That’s something worth keeping in mind in general. Whether implicitly or explicitly, everything we do and everything we think, directs who we will be and what we will think at a later time.