The Nature of Nostalgia

Zachary Boren

Memories are made of this…Zachary Boren visits and interprets the nature of longing for the past, with a little help from Freud, Geahchan and the Sims signature tune.

An elderly man, tall and thin and angular, sits in a restaurant of red velvet. He lifts his head and watches the waiter, a red-haired teenager on roller-skates, bring his food. He looks sceptically at the dish. He is the food critic, with the power to make or break this establishment, yet he has been given a plate of ratatouille, a peasant’s dish. He lifts the fork to his mouth, thin slices of zucchini and tomato at its end. As he delicately places the food on his tongue he is instantaneously moved to another time, to another place. He is no longer surrounded by garish curtains, or listening to the mumblings of the other patrons. He sits at the wooden dinner table of his childhood, quietly crying because he scraped his knee. His mother knows exactly what he needs; she brings him a plate of ratatouille. How wonderful the boy feels, eating like this. It’s as though the food and his mother’s love have made better his injury. He closes his eyes to enjoy his meal. And he is back in the restaurant, in a deep reverie. He drops his fork. What was that? The texture, the aroma, the taste. What Anton Ego, the antagonist of Pixar’s spectacular Ratatouille felt was nostalgia, a beautifully complicated emotion. At once, he experiences joy and sorrow, hope and regret.

The word nostalgia comes from Homer and his Odyssey, and its parts mean ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain, ache’. In the modern age, nostalgia is recognized as a yearning for something or sometime past, often for one’s childhood. In psychoanalysis, nostalgia is considered not only as a longing for the past, but a longing for an idealized past, for a moment that never actually existed. The screen memory, as Freud conceived, is a combination of many different memories; an inaccurate account of the past in which feelings are included or overlooked after the fact. (I will explore this concept in greater detail later). It is for these screen memories that we long, these idealized moments that we recall, when we hear or smell or taste something that reminds us of another time. It is our sense of smell that most often triggers a feeling of nostalgia: “Anatomically, the nose directly connects with the olfactory lobe in the limbic system – that area of the brain considered the seat of the emotions. The olfactory lobe is actually part and parcel of the limbic system” (MacLean, 1973). The nose’s ability to awaken emotional memories is called olfactory-evoked recall. Interestingly, smell is first sense that newborns develop. Nostalgia is triggered physiologically but, as a psychological phenomenon, its meaning is far more significant and it “comes from how it relates to our identity and how we maintain congruity between our current and past concept of ourselves” (

nostalgia 1

Nostalgia, a concept for which memory is at the heart, is triggered by an evocation of something we recognize from our past. We must consider, however, that this moment or feeling that we recall may, in fact, be airbrushed or fictionalized by our memory. Alan Hirsch (1992) wrote: “During the analysis of the transference neurosis, the patient’s earliest memory undergoes changes and divides into multiple components that are separate, definable childhood memories.” Freud even theorized that memories of childhood are instead memories of memories, that the memory’s emotional agenda has distorted our impression of the past, and coloured our experiences: “It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves” (Freud, 1899:322). These screen memories, as he named them, concern “the operation of memory and its distortions, the importance and raison d’etre of phantasies, the amnesia covering our early years” (ibid:301). Freud’s screen memories lend credence to the notion that nostalgia is often a psychological defence, that it derives from falsehoods and uses these misinterpretations of the past as the foundation for future behaviours.

How and why nostalgia is triggered is key to understanding its purpose and consequence. The feeling of nostalgia is given life by symbols, by an object or a feeling, or something that represents a moment past. These symbols are a reminder of the linearity of time, and they signify something that cannot be recaptured, something familiar and safe. These symbols represent transition.

Melanie Klein wrote (Spillius, 1988): “The symbols are also created in the internal world as a means of restoring, recreating, recapturing and owning again the original objects… The capacity to experience loss and the wish to recreate the object within oneself gives the individual the unconscious freedom in the use of symbols”. And this is the crux of nostalgia as a feeling; a recognition of absence. What was once had or felt is no longer. These symbols both remind us of what we have lost and provide us with a moment that we have once again.

Professor Morris Holbrook (2003) explained why certain symbols are chosen: “We believe that there is a critical period, analogous to imprinting in a baby chick, during which we tend to form strong preferences for whatever objects we frequently encounter – say, music, movies, celebrities, clothing styles, automobile designs, or whatever.” That our attachments to objects of nostalgic significance are determined in our formative years, from childhood to early adulthood, is a worthy observation. As such, these objects suggest a return to the safety of home. Hirsch (1992) concluded that the “idealized emotional state is framed within a past era, and the yearning for the idealized emotional state manifests as an attempt to recreate that past era by reproducing activities performed then and by using symbolic representations of the past. Idealized past emotions become displaced on to inanimate objects, sounds, smells and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions.”

What does it mean that we experience nostalgia? Do we remember or do we long for or do we actively pursue our past? Of course there is a variety of reasons for and consequences of this phenomenon. For many, nostalgia is a wonderful feeling, a combination of joy of what once was and a twinge of regret that it is no longer. That is healthy nostalgia. There is also a pathological manifestation of the emotion, a compulsion to recapture that feeling long lost. This nostalgia, as Hirsch wrote, “… may be viewed in psychiatric terms as a driving force for actual behavior” (Hirsch, 1992). Nostalgia, for instance, can drive abused children to marry abusive partners because they long for the familiar and yearn for the past, even if it was unhappy.

Herein lies the destruction of the unreliable memory, the idealization of the past. In these instances, in which one tries to recreate the environment of one’s youth, nostalgia is less likely to be recognized as such. Nostalgia manifests unconsciously. One may understand that their abusive childhood was unhappy, but, because memory rewrites the past and reinterprets feelings, one still attempts to reconnect and relive the past. Those with a troubled past and/or present are more likely to engage with this destructive nostalgia, perhaps unconsciously seeking to understand.

James Phillips (1985:70) outlined three levels of nostalgia in psychoanalysis: “That of the mother as the repressed and unconscious object of nostalgia, that of the ego-ideal, a personality based on internalization and that of the transitional object and language.” The first, yearning for that original oneness with the mother, is the base principle of almost all manifestations of nostalgia. In both the womb and in early infancy, the child has a symbiotic relationship with the mother, one that can never be replicated. Separation, however, is inevitable and absence follows suit. Phillips explains: ‘The transitional object – concrete, unarticulated, preverbal – and embodying for the infants the lost state of oneness with the mother – may be thought of as the earliest precursor of nostalgia” (ibid). This nostalgia is inherent to the human condition. We are all designed to experience it, and find ways to compensate for it.

nostalgia 2

Of the ego-ideal, internalized nostalgia, French analyst Dominique Geahchan (1968) investigated: “The nostalgic object thus represents a narcissistic structure of the personality. The nostalgic cannot relinquish his search for the lost object because that would represent giving up his own narcissistically invested, grandiose self-image. It is now not simply the absent, repressed mother who is nostalgically longed for, but rather the mother as internalized into a personality structure.”

This internalized idealization is problematic. The nostalgic projects his narcissistic ideal on to others; everything and everyone must compensate for the ineffable absence. Of course such perfection is impossible and invariably the ideal for which the nostalgic strives is not met. Instead of recognizing his unrealistic expectations, he pursues this ideal with even greater vigour. The original absence of the mother has left a narcissistic wound too large and it has been left unaddressed for too long. Nostalgia has thus become an effective narcissistic defence. The nostalgic sentimentalizes the past; it is no longer real, it is inflated. Think of ‘the good old days’ reminiscing by so many ‘old timers’ in film and TV. Everything, once so great, is now so terrible. He thinks, “I am the ideal, and it is the world and everyone else in it that prevents my happiness.”

Furthermore, for the narcissist, the idealized past can be reclaimed through objects. The symbols mentioned earlier are collected as a way of reclaiming the mother, owning the ideal. Geahchan wrote of internalized nostalgia: “It offers an illustration of the birth of symbols and language. The struggle over the absence of the real mother is shifted into a symbolic order – and on two levels, that of the concrete object, and that of words. The mother, absent in reality can now be made to be symbolically present” (Geachan, 1968). The narcissistic nostalgic struggles to reconcile the real with the ideal because reality demonstrates that what he longs for no longer exists, that it may never have done. Reality demands that he sever his destructive nostalgic attachment, something that can prove impossible. Freud wrote: “This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a wishful psychosis”(Freud, 1918:244) . This is touched on in The Sopranos in which Tony, the boss of his mafia family, comes to realize through therapy, that his idealized childhood was unhappy and his parents were, and are, toxic. In this instance, nostalgia shows the ability to induce a sort of madness. Hilary Dickinson and Michael Erben (2006) elaborated: “A particular problem of attachment formation outlined by Freud is the narcissistic reaction; and this will be shown to be relevant to some expressions of nostalgia… The early, all consuming, love for the self and for the mother figure are transmuted into adult attachments and to a range of love objects. It may happen, however, that a person will remain more or less fixed in the narcissistic phase and continues to seek his or her self as a love object.”

The nostalgia I’ve just explored, pathological and psychologically destructive, manifests unconsciously. There is another type, the one that most everyone recognizes as nostalgia, and it manifests consciously. Basically, to identify this feeling of longing limits the emotion’s negative capability. To feel such a way, to yearn for a moment lost, and not understand what, or why, is what drives defensive and regressive behaviour. Dickinson and Erben (2006) wrote: “Nostalgic thoughts mourn a loss but they also include acceptance of the loss, and it is that acceptance that makes possible a pleasurable feeling along with an out-rush of regret.” It is acceptance that separates healthy from unhealthy nostalgia, the ability to move on.

nostalgia 3

Nostalgia can be beautiful, even transcendent. It can be an expression of joy for life lived. This is my experience of it. Sometimes I feel a tickle, an itch I want scratched. I wish to feel as I had done when I was younger when things were simple and new. I turn on this song (The Sims signature tune) and for a moment I return to a ritual from my childhood, playing the first ‘The Sims’ on my archaic Packard Bell. It’s not the building of a house that I really recall, nor decorating it with silly items listed under ‘miscellaneous’. I remember joy, less inhibited and more unadulterated. I don’t remember a moment; I remember a state of being. Things so familiar now were once so fresh and exciting and incredible. Only when I remember young me, who believed in good and evil, and who didn’t like the texture of mushrooms, do I realize how complicated life has become. So I listen to Supertramp, or I eat Tevall vegetarian sausages, or I play Final Fantasy VII, or I smell my old copy of Goodnight Moon. Through these objects I connect with my past, who I was then, who my parents were then. I don’t want to live there, but I need to revisit it from time to time.

Data accumulated by Tim Wildschut (2006) suggest that those who engage with positive nostalgia exhibit higher self-esteem and greater satisfaction for their present life. Wildschut’s studies indicate that healthy nostalgics tend to see their past as positive, they are less prone to depression and are better at coping with problems. These findings reinforce what I have theorized about conscious and unconscious nostalgia; those who recognize the feeling and who can accept the past as past, will benefit from engaging with the experiences which have shaped their development. As expected, emotional honesty is easier when your formative years are happy. Loyola psychologist Fred Bryant (2006) advocates the positivity of nostalgia: “Reminiscence can motivate you, it can give you a sense of being rooted, a sense of meaning and purpose—instead of being blown around by the whims of everyday life”.

Nostalgia, like grief and mourning, is a reaction to loss. How it manifests is determined by what was lost and by how life is after the fact. People are designed to experience nostalgia; it is an expression of the passing of time, of where we come from and where we are now. The moment that we lose that extraordinary intimacy with our mother sets us up for a lifetime of loss and change. Nostalgia can keep us grounded whilst we move forward, or it can keep us trapped in a past we must unravel before we can grow.

Zachary Boren has written for various journals and magazines including The Independent, Press Association and Variety. He has written several film reviews for Contemporary Psychotherapy.

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Dickinson, H. & Erben, M (2006) Nostalgia and Autobiography: The Past in the Present retrieved March 2013
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On Edge Online (2012)The Psychology of… Nostalgia retrieved March 2013
Phillips, James (1985) Distance, Absence, and Nostalgia in Descriptions ed. Don Ihde Albany, NY: Suny Press
Sims signature tune on Youtube – retrieved March 2013
Spillius, E.B ed (1988) Melanie Klein Today 1: Mainly Theory New Library of Psychoanalysis, Routledge
Wildschut, T (2006) Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 975-993

Image: Nostalgia by marc e marc


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