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Phenomena Understood

Wijnanda Deroo, Relish, 225 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, 2009. From the series Inside New York Restaurants. Courtesy the artist and Robert Mann Gallery.

The Wayback Machine

How nostalgia works and why social media may destroy it altogether, or restore it to its original purpose.

This past July, I went to the opening night of the Smashing Pumpkins/Marilyn Manson “End Times” co-headlining tour in Concord, Calif. Thirty-three-year-old me was happy to attend, and 15-year-old me was ecstatic. But it was the communication between the two that caused tears to stream down my face when the song “1979” peaked.

For those born before 1980 or after 1982, the Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson were less bands than individuals: Billy Corgan, lead Pumpkin, and the eponymous Manson. The former sang with a soft-then-screaming-then-soft-again style that meshed with the swirling shoegaze/thick metal sound from layered guitars. The latter was a tall, skinny embodiment of Halloween who courted controversy by ripping and tearing Bibles and cutting himself onstage. Both were big in the ’90s on radio stations that considered themselves “alternative,” whatever that meant.

But for anyone born around 1981, I’ve already said enough. As someone who grew up Catholic in the suburbs of Chicago, these were the two most important bands of my teenage life. Manson’s status as the “Antichrist Superstar” status took care of my rebellious phase. The Pumpkins, who originated from Chicago, were lures into promises hidden within the urban jungle. So when the tour was announced, I immediately marked down the date.

The crowd was as you might expect, or even remember: fishnetted, heavy eye makeup, hair in extravagant styles. A pair of protesters stood at the entrance, handing out pamphlets warning us that we were “worshipping the devil.” At the merch table were black T-shirts with ZERO emblazoned across the front, promoting the Pumpkins’ ’95 single while doubling as a branding statement about one’s lack of worth, thereby morphing into a statement about one’s voluminous self-value in a “that’s sick” equals “that’s cool” kind of way. Any purchases made that night were, no doubt, redundant, the originals buried deep in some storage chest at home.

See, rather than the audience being composed of skinny, disaffected teens, it was doughier, balder, full of creases. The two musical acts, after all, had peaked two decades prior, and the respective fan bases had grown up, even if their fishnets didn’t make the journey. Angst over detention and parents just-not-understanding had been replaced by worries about 401ks and the pros and cons of charter schools. (Manson even took the stage well before the sun went down, which didn’t seem like something the Antichrist would do.) Anger and despair were broadcast from the speakers, but another emotion reigned over the evening: nostalgia.

I felt it flow through my body in a three-hour-long chest tingle and throat-clench combo. Each song was an out-of-body experience, floating through a music video composed of memories. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” had me slipping the goth girl in chemistry class $20 to pick up the latest Manson album, thwarting the surveillance of my Parental Advisory/Explicit Lyrics-adhering parents. “Disarm” was haunted by teenage me, alone, Discman turned all the way up as I drifted to sleep. This wasn’t a concert, it was church.

Nostalgia lingers in the background of my life, biding its time until I’m driving through my hometown, or looking through a box of old photos, or getting coffee with an ex. And then it pounces, hard, morphing me into a quivering, blubbering mess, at least on the inside. Seems like a mean trick for my body to play when I’m supposed to be enjoying a concert.

 

While the poets of antiquity and writers of the Bible mentioned some nebulous feeling of loss, the term “nostalgia” didn’t officially show up until a 1688 dissertation by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer. The term combines the Greek terms nostos (which means “returning home”) and algia (which means “pain”). As Hofer put it, it was “the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again.” In other words, homesickness.

Along with this “outbreak” of dysfunction came the cures: leeches, stomach purgings, something called “warm hypnotic emulsions.” In his paper “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud shifted the culprit for the “disease” to the brain, the cause of nostalgia—Freud, always on-brand—being past traumas that must be uncovered and analyzed. The shift changed the medical community’s understanding of where this feeling could be hiding, and also pushed remedies towards a preventative bent. Soon, parents were encouraged not to instill such a close-knit familial life so as not to create the painful desire to return, keep that upper lip stuff and all. In retrospect, this seems overly dramatic; this overwhelming emotional breakdown isn’t what we think when we see the word “nostalgia.”

Nostalgia may work as a kind of internalized therapist, the memories of past events providing proof that, yes, you can cope with this. After all, you’ve done so before.

“I never thought of it as a bad thing, and I certainly never thought of it as a sickness or disease,” said Krystine Batcho, a Le Moyne College professor of psychology who specializes in nostalgia. To figure out more about this weird, murky, shockingly universal feeling, she released the Nostalgia Inventory, which asks respondents what they miss about when they were younger, and how much they miss it. They’re then given a list of trigger phrases to elicit reactions, such as “Family,” “Music,” “Someone You Loved,” and asked to circle a number one through nine depending on the strength of the feeling. ”Most agree nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion,” said Batcho. “It’s recognizing the loss of something. It used to be and now it isn’t.” The Manson/Pumpkins concert, then, reminded me, and thus forced me to recognize through a blurry veil of streaming tears, that my high school years were long, long gone.

Since nostalgia is related, somehow, to memory, researchers were given a clue as to where to look. Last year, Japanese researchers hooked 14 women up to an fMRI scan as they were showed emotional triggers from their elementary school years and found that “Nostalgia caused both the hippocampus and several rewards areas to become active. And the more nostalgic a person felt, the stronger this co-activation was.” It’s this secret sauce—the activation of memory and the activation of a reward center—where nostalgia gains its power.

Why would brains do this? One theory is that, through nostalgic feelings, brains teach people to put certain memories over others in levels of importance. If people get a tasty snack when they think about childhood, and get absolutely nothing when they think about math, which memories will be revisited more often? It’s a self-proliferating loop for specific memories about the most emotionally charged time periods. But, still: Why are brains lingering on certain “nostalgic” memories over others?

One possible reason is therapeutic. The older one gets, the more tragedies accumulate. That just goes with the territory of living. One of the oldest methods of helping someone to cope—for better or worse—is by offering the knowledge that other people have gone through this before, and have gotten through them. Nostalgia may work as a kind of internalized therapist, the memories of past events providing proof that, yes, you can cope with this. After all, you’ve done so before.

But another big reason for nostalgia to be locked away, waiting to raise our pulse and redden our face when an old song comes on the radio, is to provide people with a sort of permanence, says Batcho. As we go through life, we’re changing, not only in how we look—hey there, #tbt—but also in where we live, the social circle we inhabit, the beliefs we have. That kid lying in his bed before sleep, headphones on full blast, lip-synching his heart out to Billy Corgan belting out “Thru The Eyes of Ruby” while keeping an eye on the cracked door, making sure no one’s coming in to interrupt this vulnerable scene, that kid’s still in there somewhere. Nostalgia gives us coherence as a person, as an identity, as someone.

But human bodies are constantly downsizing, happy to chuck excessive traits out the window as they roll through evolution. For many people existing in a constant present, nostalgia may no longer be useful. And without value, it may disappear altogether.

 

Nostalgia is rooted in the temporal distance between memory and when that memory’s being recollected. Whether it’s purposeful or simply osmotic, anyone on social media is constantly tracking the movements of people from their pasts. Meaning, the distance that creates the need for nostalgia has been shrunk to near nothing.

“Ours is an age of unending remembrance, where memories, particularly photos, are omnipresent, where nostalgia feels increasingly redundant,” writes Charlotte Lytton in a piece titled “Social Media Killed Nostalgia” for the Boston Globe. “Social media’s function as a conveyor belt of bite-sized nostalgia places its members right in the heart of this digital quandary, allowing anything you’ve ever entered to be spat back out on a whim.”

It may also mean the death, at the very least a shift, in the part of our brain that allows for nostalgic reminisces.

As explained, one possible reason for nostalgia’s existence is to help us to archive our lives, a development that occurred out of necessity. But just as remembering phone numbers or, well, anything Googleable is a thing of the past, holding onto our own memories may also be fading. By having thousands and thousands of photos, tweets, and posts available whenever we want to access them—even if, in reality, we don’t—might that keep our brains from using the nostalgic function? Will our ability to have nostalgic moments fade as our ability to archive everything continues unabated? Will the reward/memory center of our brain turn vestigial, like our tailbones and wisdom teeth? We don’t know.

We’re changing not only in how we look but where we live, the social circle we inhabit, the beliefs we have. Nostalgia gives us coherence as a person, as an identity, as someone.

One thing we do know for certain is that, in its current form, social media is one hell of a trigger.

“On social media, someone posts pictures of the class and says ’look what we have become,’ and that triggers nostalgia because that’s a shared memory,” said Katharina Niemeyer, an Associate Professor of the French Press Institute who studies media and nostalgia. “And nostalgia can still be triggered when you meet them in person, and you get back to the old stories we don’t always share on Facebook.”

In fact, Niemeyer suggests that the ongoing expansion of social media use may be bringing nostalgia back to its roots. In our new era of interconnectivity and globalization, there are more people of differing ethnicities scattered all throughout the globe. And every move to a strange place comes with it a desperate search for identity. In many cases, that search leads back home.

“The way to keep in touch with your home country is through the mobile phone and social networks,” said Niemeyer. And so family members and friends from the past will pass along movies, music, art, everything they’re missing while off on their journey. Social media, then, becomes a way to mainline the initial emotion that had doctors scratching their heads back in the 1600s: homesickness. “Nostalgia becomes what it used to be,” she said.

 

When I got into my car after the concert, the Smashing Pumpkins started back up again, right at the beginning of the song “The Everlasting Gaze.” I’d been listening to a Greatest Hits collection—on CD even!—on my drive to the Bay Area suburb, a near-mirror image of my own suburban birthplace despite being located 2,100 miles away. I had my great aunt’s Ford Grenada back then, and it didn’t even have a tape deck.

“You know I’m not dead,” Billy Corgan snarled through the speakers when I turned on the car. “You know I’m, you know I’m not dead.” I let a few chords play before shutting it off and turning back on the radio. I’d gotten my fix, now ready to resume normal living. But it was nice to spend the last few hours living in the ’90s.

The past is a wilderness trail winding far behind, dotted with the breadcrumbs of important and life-changing events: a move away from home, the development of the body in adolescence, or in middle age, the first attack of heartbreak, when we came to appreciate that, as Billy Corgan put it, the world, indeed, is a vampire. Nostalgia—from a concert, or stumbling across old photos, or feeling that soft, constant punch in the gut when unexpectedly running into an ex—is a reminder to turn around and make sure nothing’s gobbled up the trail. It’s to remind us that, if we ever need to, we can always find our way back home.