Jason Feifer: This is Build For Tomorrow, a podcast about the unexpected things that shape us and how we can shape the future. I’m Jason Feifer. At the beginning of the pandemic, I had this thought and it felt too insensitive to share. Things were scary at the time, and so I kept this thought to myself because here’s a little tip for anyone who needs it, you don’t need to tweet every thought you have. Seriously. But now that we are living in a different time, I’m going to tell you what I was thinking. It was this, at some point at the end of the pandemic people are going to be nostalgic for it. It just seemed inevitable. And I thought about this in a kind of sneering, “Oh, you stupid people,” kind of way.
Jason Feifer: People are often nostalgic for the good old days that never actually happened. They vote based on a story about the past, rather than the facts about the past. So why I figured would they not also be nostalgic for a pandemic? So that was the thought. And again, I did not tweet that thought. And then a year passed and people started to get vaccinated and we began to imagine the end of this thing. And then wouldn’t it? The nostalgia arrived.
Voice Clip (Emily Ramshaw): Suddenly today, I panicked about life inching back toward normal. I don’t want to travel endlessly for work. I don’t want my weekends to be over-committed with activities. I don’t want to miss bedtime with my kid. I don’t want to wear blazers or hell even shoes.
Jason Feifer: That was a tweet sent by Emily Ramshaw, co-founder and CEO of a news organization called The 19th in March 2021. It received 8,000 retweets and 94,600 likes. Over at Philadelphia magazine around the same time a writer named Earnest Owens wrote a piece headlined, “The pandemic made me realize I hate everything about my old social life.” The Atlantic ran a piece titled, “The coming nostalgia for hyper-nesting.” On Connecticut Public Radio, the Collin McEnroe Show invited listeners to share what they’re nostalgic for, which ran in an episode titled, “We’re feeling nostalgic for quarantine life, it wasn’t all bad.” Here is from one listener of the show who reminisced about having her kids at home.
Speaker 1: We ate dinner together every night for a year. That part, that was kind of great.
Jason Feifer: I’m sure that everyone involved in all of this media would acknowledge that these are privileged experiences to have. Many people’s time of COVID will be defined by great loss and tragedy, but I’ll be honest I am also one of the fortunate ones. I kept my job, I spent a lot more time with family, I grew in unexpected ways. But all the same I will admit to you, the idea of COVID nostalgia just annoyed the crap out of me. It made me think about how we’re so often looking backwards, not forwards and we’re shaving the edges off of our own history. Here seemed to be the perfect evidence of that. We could not stop thinking that the past was better than the future even if the past was full of death and destruction. But then I got to wondering, “Well, wait a second. Why do we do this? Why do we think of bad times as better than they were?” And I started calling historians and brain scientists and memory researchers, and came away with some really unexpected insights that made me change how I feel about this whole thing. Like for example, this.
Felipe De Brigard: If our memories of bad events were as negative at the time of retrieval, as they were at the time of encoding, it will be a very burdensome memory to live with, right? It would suck.
Jason Feifer: Our brains are actually designed to minimize the bad things from our past as a kind of defense mechanism. And here’s another insight that blew me away.
Anne Wilson: Although we often don’t think about positive past as being a future oriented kind of experience, there’s research that shows that the more people dip into nostalgic memories at the right times, the more they often feel energized and hopeful about the future.
Jason Feifer: Nostalgia, even when it seems totally illogical is not really about anchoring ourselves to the past in the way that I thought it was. It is about helping us move forward. Anyway, I will properly introduce both of the people you just heard a little later, because we are going in deep with both of them. On this episode of Build For Tomorrow, we are taking a trip down memory lane to understand our own memories. And spoiler alert, your memories even your most cherished ones are probably wrong in some way. They may in fact, even be completely made up. And at the end of this, once you understand why all that is, we are going to contemplate what feels like a really dangerous question, but is so real that we should face it which is, “What if the truth of our memories doesn’t really matter?” You may never trust your memories again. All coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right, we are back. So on this episode, we are looking at why so many people experience COVID nostalgia and what that tells us about our brains, our memories, and our futures. And to start us on this journey, I want to tell you about a moment that happened while I was researching this episode. About a kind of nostalgia for a very different, difficult time. My wife’s grandfather, Alan Kleinman turned 100 years old, a few months ago. And so we traveled to Cleveland to celebrate with the family. And that day on his 100th birthday, we ended up sitting around a pool with kids running around and asking him questions about his time in World War II. He was in… Well, he’ll tell you.
Alan Kleinman: The 4th Armored Division, 51st Armored Infantry Battalion. And we rode tanks.
Jason Feifer: Alan doesn’t have a perfect memory anymore of course, he is 100 after all, but he is sharp. He’s doing great. And he told us about his training and his time at war. And he still had a mind for detail like about this guy Kinky who was in his battalion, but wasn’t exactly military material.
Alan Kleinman: He was about 5’5”, weighed 200 pounds. What was he doing in the army? And so they let him out.
Jason Feifer: And he told us about what was waiting for him back at home.
Alan Kleinman: Oh yeah, I had a girl in Washington. Oh yeah, that’s right. Yep.
Jason Feifer: And so anyway, as this conversation is happening, I start thinking about the research I’ve been doing for this podcast episode about COVID nostalgia and how our brains smooth out our memories of difficult times. And I realized that I have an interesting case study right in front of me. This is a man who fought in World War II, which is not something you get to hear about firsthand much these days. And so I asked him, “Alan, when you remember your time in the war, what do you remember? Like, do you think about like the scary parts of the world? You think about the camaraderie of the war? What do you think?”
Alan Kleinman: It’s a very interesting question. I guess I must have been too stupid, but I was never worried in the war. I mean war never bothered me.
Jason Feifer: Huh.
Alan Kleinman: Vic, my father who knew everybody but God, wanted to get me out. And I said, “Don’t get me out because I’m going.”
Jason Feifer: That’s what he remembers. No fear, just a desire to be there. And let’s not forget, this was a guy fighting Nazis in World War II. Parts of that had to be scary and dangerous, no matter how much he wanted to be there. Surely there were times when he wondered if he’d make it out alive, but to whatever degree that occurred, it is gone. What Alan retains are the funny stories to tell and the details worth sharing with his grandchildren. Now, obviously this is just a case study of one man who lived a rich life after the war and who was not on the front lines of the absolute worst of the fighting. And obviously many people are traumatized by war and understandably so, but still Alan is representative of a much bigger phenomenon.
Felipe De Brigard: The thing that is extraordinary and is surprising for me as a nostalgia researcher, if you want, is that oftentimes we feel nostalgic for events that we did not like at the time.
Jason Feifer: That is Felipe who you heard from earlier.
Felipe De Brigard: My name is Felipe De Brigard and I am an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department and in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and also in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience here at Duke University.
Jason Feifer: And Felipe says there is a very long history of this, of people who lived through difficult times and who looked back on them fondly.
Felipe De Brigard: There is plenty of examples. One of my favorite studies is a study conducted in Poland with individuals that have lived the communist regime.
Jason Feifer: And you guessed it. These people were nostalgic for a regime that they very clearly suffered under. Similarly, when history Professor Donald Worster was researching a book about the Dust Bowl, which was a series of dust storms and droughts in the 1930s that crippled the farming industry and people’s lives in the United States’ Southern Plains, he met people who lived through it and had terrible stories to tell, but who also sometimes spoke like this.
Donald Worster: Old lady I talked to in a house in Sublette, Kansas. Yeah, she was saying something about, “Oh, it was the happiest time of my life.”
Jason Feifer: That is Donald. He’s now a Professor of History at Renmin University in Beijing. In his book, which came out in 1979 is called, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. And why did people who lived through the Dust Bowl sometimes speak longingly of it? “It wasn’t because they’d forgotten about their struggles,” he says, but rather because the dust bowl also featured parts of their lives that they really liked.
Donald Worster: I grew up with those people, they’re my family. And there were some things they miss that they thought were positive in their lives. And I think this is the thing about nostalgia. People aren’t usually nostalgic about everything in the past or everything of a particular time, but their qualities, characteristics, experiences, relationships that they’ve lost. And they look back on them and idealize them to some extent, of course. But I wouldn’t say they’re always wrong. The ’30s was a time when people had to work hard and pull together in ways that for many people today are no longer meaningful.
Jason Feifer: But this is not a phenomenon reserved just for massive economic or geopolitical events. No, this happens on a personal level too. We have all experienced it, even Felipe.
Felipe De Brigard: I think about my high school, I hated high school. I hated it. I was bullied, I was not popular. And yet sometimes I find myself daydreaming with nostalgia about high school. Like why on earth? I know for a fact that I didn’t like it.
Jason Feifer: Who hasn’t done that? I sure have. With high school, which I also hated and with past relationships, which didn’t always work out. Science has a term for this. It is called fading affect bias. In short, it means that bad memories fade faster than good memories. As Felipe explained this to me, I got to thinking about how this is an overlooked flip side of a much more familiar phenomenon. And that is the good old days. We are all familiar with the good old days, right? It’s that belief that sometime before our tie was the perfect time when everyone was happier and healthier and wealthier and morally upstanding and not corrupted by whatever politics or standards or new technologies or whatever, supposedly afflict our current time.
Jason Feifer: People love the story of the good old days. I did a whole episode of this podcast that went through 1,000s of years of history, trying to find anyone who described their time as a golden age, but instead just found medieval scholars and Roman historians and Sumerians writing cuneiform on clay tablets and Mesopotamia, all talking about the good old days that they just missed. It has been with us forever. But now with COVID nostalgia and fading affect bias, here we see the other side of the good old days. Is the bad old days the nostalgia for times that were definitively bad, but that we remember as better than they were? Once I recognized this, I had so many questions like, “Why does our brain do this? How much can we even trust our memories and what actually is a memory?”
Jason Feifer: So here’s what we’re going to do for the rest of this episode. First, we are going to talk about memories. What they are, how they work, why they’re unreliable. Then we’re going to talk about using our memories to our benefit and how they shape our identity. And then we’re going to engage in that uncomfortable question that I raised a moment ago, which is whether it really matters if our memories are wrong. First up, Felipe is going to give us the deep dive on memories.
Felipe De Brigard: Memory is not a faculty that attempts to reproduce with fidelity what happened in the past.
Jason Feifer: I’ll translate that out of science speak for you. Our brains do not even attempt to remember things perfectly. That is impractical, it is too much information and we couldn’t store it in our brains if we tried. Instead, our brains store what are like fragments of information. If you go on vacation for example, the vacation is not retained in your brain as a singular memory, like a film reel you can rewatch. Instead, a bunch of bits and pieces of it are stored separately. And a year later when you’re reminiscing about the vacation, you’re not remembering the vacation in full. What you’re doing is your brain is literally reassembling those bits and pieces into a coherent narrative for you at the time. It’s not stored, it is reassembled every time. Felipe compares it to a paleontologist digging up a dinosaur bone. Instead of finding a big old, perfect bone you can stick on a shelf, the paleontologist finds a crumbled mess of fossil parts.
Felipe De Brigard: You don’t have all the pieces of the fossil. So you have to make use of other kinds of information to complete the fossil of the dinosaur or whatever, right?
Jason Feifer: And now here’s where it gets interesting because how do we feel in the gaps between all the missing pieces of our memories? Well, we don’t realize we’re doing this and we don’t do it intentionally, but we imagine it.
Felipe De Brigard: I have a view which is not only me, but lots of researchers that work in similar areas have come to realize that memory and imagination are really not entirely different faculties. That memory and imagination are profoundly intertwined. And many of the processes that enable us to remember the past are also processes that enable us to imagine not only possible futures, but enable us to imagine alternative ways in which past events could have occurred.
Jason Feifer: And why would we do this? It seems kind of dangerous. This is a blurring effect in fiction, which we are very quick to punish politicians and journalists for and rightly so, but inside of our brains fact and fiction come from the same place. Why?
Felipe De Brigard: One thing that we forget at times is that remembering is not only an issue about bringing mental representations of past events to the present, but sometimes we use memories to help us in the present. Or sometimes we use imagination to help us in the present.
Jason Feifer: Why do we reminisce with friends? It isn’t to honor or tell the true story of the past. Now who cares about that? It’s to foster our relationships in the present so that they’re here for us in the future. If you’re happily married, why do you remember happy times in your marriage? It is not because you’re making a record book of your marriage.
Felipe De Brigard: I mean, we spend an enormous amount of time remembering in part because it’s good, because it’s helpful.
Jason Feifer: It keeps you happy, it keeps you in a good relationship. That’s why we do it. But of course not everything we experience is good. Not everything in our memories is positive. And this is where imagination can be especially helpful because it can help us alter our memories. We want to learn from negative experiences, but there is really no biological point to perfectly retaining and then being able to actually relive those negative experiences, we have to move on. And so if everything is working properly, we do.
Felipe De Brigard: You can combine imaginations like parts of the past events that didn’t happen and you can sort of contaminate your regional memory with bits and pieces of information that are not from the original event, but that had been sort of incorporated in the process of contamination. And then at the time of retrieval, then you amplify them and then the good gets amplified.
Jason Feifer: Now look, Felipe was very clear to me when we spoke, this is not a perfect system. For some people, particularly people who experienced some kind of trauma memory will force them to viscerally relive an experience over and over. And even for otherwise healthy individuals, our memory and imagination systems can produce false memories, which can get us into all sorts of trouble. But the same systems that cause the problem can also be the solution because our flexible memories are the reason that therapy works. We can alter in some way what we remember or how clearly and viscerally we remember it. But that’s not the only problem to navigate, this system of flexible memories, of fusing imagination and truth can lead us to make mistakes that we should have learned from because our feelings of nostalgia and our faulty memories can become more convincing than whatever our actual experiences were. On a grand scale, that can lead to demagogues being elected. But it happens on a personal level too, as Felipe can attest.
Felipe De Brigard: This might be actually hitting closer to home than expected, but do you get contacted by this high school friend that you had. And there’s just a very nice sort of nostalgic event you go like, “I’m going to invite him over for dinner, and we’re going to have dinner.” And you invite him over for dinner and he’s awful because of course 20 years have passed, because of course what you remember with that friend was like the one moment that was fun, but not like the other 250,000 moments where he wasn’t.
Jason Feifer: This got me wondering about how and if we can control what we do remember because there are all sorts of good reasons to forget something or to alter our memories with imaginations, but we don’t want to get stuck having dinner with that high school friend we forgot we hated. Or for that matter, do that thing where you get back together with an ex and then you remember why you broke up and then you break up and then you get back together again. And anyway, nobody wants that. Also nobody wants to take a job that’s exactly like the previous job that you didn’t like. It’s not going to be better this time. And on the flip side, we want to actually remember more of the good stuff.
Jason Feifer: We want to create memories based on experiences that we actually liked the first time and then remember them truly. So is there some way to, I don’t know, anchor ourselves to reality? Felipe says there’s not a lot we can do, but there are a few tactics worth trying. One thing is for experiences that were genuinely bad, you could record how bad it was. When you break up with that ex for example, write a letter to yourself explaining how bad it really is in the moment so you don’t forget later. Another strategy is this.
Felipe De Brigard: So what we can do is to sort of tag that memory with sort of the information that it was not good.
Jason Feifer: Which means that every time we think of something more fondly than we should…
Felipe De Brigard: Override it by saying, “Yeah, I know it sounds good, but it wasn’t.” Right?
Jason Feifer: And now the flip side of this, how can we remember more of the good stuff? How can we create distinct memories that we actually want to remember? The answer here tells us something pretty insightful about memory, but also about COVID nostalgia. And it is this…
Felipe De Brigard: Memory is extraordinarily sensitive to breakings of events.
Jason Feifer: Our brains are not good at keeping time. We do not have some internal calendar that we mark things on, which is why you will struggle to remember if something happened last week or last month. Instead, our brain tends to log information based on what Felipe calls segmentation. Which is to say that new experiences create distinct memories and similar things just blur together.
Felipe De Brigard: So you really need things to change so that you can segment different events in your past.
Jason Feifer: This is why when you travel days can feel longer than normal days. It’s because more unique things happened, which created more segmentation, which in a way means you have more memorable things stuffed into the same number of hours as you might otherwise have just been sitting around at your computer at the office. COVID of course was the opposite of segmentation. It was for many people, a whole lot of the same. That does not give our brains much to hold onto, which means that we will have fewer distinct memories from that time, which means it is easier to remember just the unique stuff. And now that it’s over, Felipe says we should live our lives in the exact opposite way. Embrace the segmentation, seek out the new.
Felipe De Brigard: The most important thing is that you working for a future self. I mean, let me just put it this way. What life do you prefer? One in which you can have 50 new experiences per week, but you won’t remember any or one in which you could have 25 new experiences and remember them all? If you’re like me, I hope you’re going to say, “No, I want to have the ones that I can remember,” because there is something supremely important to have the good experiences now, but being able to remember them later on. We seek novelty, we seek events segmentation, we seek memorability because we’re working toward future selves as well. Why do we have weddings? Why did you have this big event? Is not only for now, is because you want to be able to remember it later on. If your wedding was just like a normal Tuesday, such that it is very likely to be forgotten, but then it wouldn’t be the sort of thing that you’re going to be able to remember later on, right? You want to work toward that future self too.
Jason Feifer: Which is a lovely way of thinking about it. I mean, why do anything? The answer, I guess is, “It’s a gift to our future.” But now, time for a plot twist. Because the story we’ve told so far is one of how memory works and how it protects us, which explains why we forget things from our past and then feel nostalgic about them later. But we also do something that seems like the exact opposite of that, but it happens for a different purpose.
Anne Wilson: In a lot of cases, we actually recall the past is worse than it was when it comes to our own personal identity, because we like to see ourselves as continually improving over time.
Jason Feifer: This is Anne who you also heard briefly at the beginning of this episode and who you are about to hear a lot more from because what she is saying here is kind of blowing my mind actually.
Anne Wilson: So if you compare, for example, how people actually are contemporaneously over a number of periods of time and what they recall for those periods of time, people tend to shift their past downwards. So a lot of the improvement they recall is remembered improvement.
Jason Feifer: Consider the repercussions of that. We manipulate our memories of the past to tell a story of ourselves in the present, which is to say that the stories we tell ourselves, the way we understand ourselves in the world and the way we present ourselves to others may not be real. And we may not realize it. And what are we to do with that? We will get into it next, coming up after the break.
Jason Feifer: All right, we’re back. So we began this episode by wondering about what’s behind COVID nostalgia, which led to an examination of how memory works and how faulty it is. And now it’s time to turn the spotlight on ourselves, which means it is time to fully introduce you to Anne.
Anne Wilson: So I’m Anne Wilson, and I’m a Professor of Social Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada.
Jason Feifer: And your primary focus is on memory?
Anne Wilson: So one of my areas of research is memory, but in particular identity and memory. So the ways in which we remember our past selves and how that shapes who we feel we are today.
Jason Feifer: This means that Anne asks the big questions like, well, here’s a big one, “Who are we?”
Anne Wilson: We’re actually in a time in our culture where identity is pretty central. And a lot of people talk about identity in lots of different ways. But the way that I talk about identity when we’re thinking about personal identity is that who we are in the moment is shaped by what we recall about the past and the stories that we tell as well as about the ways that we imagine ourselves moving forward in the future.
Jason Feifer: So here’s an interesting thing about our memory. We don’t just remember facts and experiences. We stitch those experiences together into a story of ourselves. It’s called episodic memory, and Anne says that to the best of our knowledge, humans are the only species on earth who do this.
Anne Wilson: The interesting thing about what lights up in the brain and the aspects of our episodic memories is that they really map on quite nicely to the way that we think about the future. So for example, somebody who is amnesiac, who has amnesia for episodic memories in the past often tends to also have real trouble planning for and imagining future events. And the same parts of the brain seem to be activated when people remember these episodes from the past, and when they think about things in the future. So one of the proposals that has been talked about in this domain is that it may be that part of the reason that our memory for the past is so imperfect is because it needs to be malleable. Because if it’s malleable, then it allows us to creatively use those same building blocks and reshape them into this future that we want to be able to imagine.
Jason Feifer: If the future is the only thing that really matters, then we need maximum flexibility to shape it. Biologically speaking, it wouldn’t make sense for our brains to completely limit future options based on past experiences. We would never learn anything, we’d never take a risk. We would never say, “I failed 10 times before, but this time it’s going to work.” We need this flexibility. And that makes sense. But the more you think about it, the more kind of insane it gets, because it starts to call into question what we know about ourselves and what kind of accountability we can expect from anybody else. Let’s start with what you heard. Anne say, just before the commercial break, people downshift their pasts, which is to say that they think of what came before as somehow harder or less satisfying, because they want to build a narrative of themselves as progressing and growing.
Jason Feifer: But if you track people over time and therefore have a true accounting of their feelings and their progress, what you find is that people’s remembered improvement, like how they remember the improvement that they’ve had about anything over time is almost always more stark than their actual improvement.
Anne Wilson: When people think about themselves over time, they think about this positive march forward into a continually improving self. Yet when people think about specific discrete memories from the past, they often do recall those past memories very positively.
Jason Feifer: We are a jumble. We make no coherent sense. We want to feel good about our past, but we also want to be better than our past. Our memory, well, it allows for both, contradictory as it may be. And I don’t know about you, but this really hits me personally because I tell a lot of stories about myself and I have started to wonder about them. Here’s the thing, I get interviewed a lot. I speak on stage a lot. People ask me questions about my life and my career journey. And at first I had long rambling answers to these questions, but then over time, the answers became refined and I delivered a clear biography of myself, full of trauma and ups and downs and lessons learned. For example, one of the stories I tell about myself is about my very first job, which was as a reporter at a tiny newspaper in Central Massachusetts called The Gardner News.
Jason Feifer: And I hated that job. At the time I aspired to work at the biggest papers in the country. And after a year at this job, I had this important realization and the realization was this, “Nobody at the New York Times or the Washington Post or whatever, anywhere that I would really want to work, nobody at these places would ever, ever, ever pick up a copy of my tiny newspaper and read my story about the local zoning board of appeals meeting and then call me up and say, “Kid, pack your bags, we’re bringing you up to the big leagues.” That would never happen. So I realized I couldn’t keep working at this tiny newspaper and wait for someone to discover me. I could never wait for anyone to come to me, I had to go to them. And so I did, I quit the job. I sat in my bedroom in this cheap apartment, literally next to a graveyard in rural Central Massachusetts and I cold pitched for nine months until I landed my first story at the Washington Post and I grew my career from there.
Jason Feifer: And it taught me the lesson that I’ve carried to this day about going to the opportunity instead of waiting for it to come to me. So anyway, I’ve told a version of that story so many times, but sometimes I honestly wonder, “How true is it?” I mean, there are parts you can fact check. I did quit that job, I did freelance out of my bedroom. I did land that Washington Post story, but did I have that thought, “They won’t come to me so I have to go to them?”
Jason Feifer: Did I ever say that back then or even think it, or did I just quit that job because I was miserable and it paid me $20,000 a year so it’s not like I was taking a big risk and it’s only later when I try to make sense of a random series of earlier events that I crafted a story on top of it? The answer is, I honestly do not know. I have told the story so many times that there is no other story to tell. There is no other memory in my brain to uncover. And so I asked Anne, “What have I done to myself?” And she said…
Anne Wilson: There are caveats to this, right? That’s especially if you’re talking publicly about yourself. Media figures have occasionally gotten themselves in trouble by telling a story that then when it gets fact-checked ends up not being quite true.
Jason Feifer: Paging Brian Williams.
Voice Clip (Brian Williams): I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.
Jason Feifer: But Anne sees these events differently than most people.
Anne Wilson: I’m often very sympathetic to folks who end up in that situation because I would guess that more often than not, they haven’t deliberately lied. They have just told these stories over and over again. And sometimes they get embellished and sometimes the edges get smoothed out and it may quite literally be the memory that they have of their own past, over time.
Jason Feifer: And this, she says is a very natural process.
Anne Wilson: When we tell stories about the past, we often tend to imagine the things that we’re talking about.
Jason Feifer: There is that pair again, memory and imagination.
Anne Wilson: So the narrative itself gets overlaid on top of the memory and it can often get harder and harder then to actually remember what was the original story and what was the slightly shifted version of that over time.
Jason Feifer: Anne cited the work of a researcher named Dan McAdams, who has done a lot of research into how we create narratives of ourselves. A popular one though, not the only one is the redemption narrative where we surmounted an obstacle.
Anne Wilson: There may be ups and downs, but it tends to be a story of progress and where you’re your own hero in that version of your own life. But other people tell stories that are much more stagnation oriented or potentially more of a decline, right? And in some cases, this is because of real true events and in many cases, people can have the same sorts of really difficult experiences and tell a story around them that’s really very different.
Jason Feifer: Which is to say, we control not just the story we tell about ourselves, but literally the story we remember about ourselves, we can experience something terrible and then remember it as a narrative of overcoming or as a narrative of decline. So how are we to… I don’t know, process this? Anne, she takes a very straightforward approach. Memory is faulty, which means her memory is faulty. That’s just a fact of life.
Anne Wilson: Often, if I tell memories about my own past, I start with a preamble that, “At least this is what I remember, but don’t trust it to be completely accurate,” right? So I just assume that half of my memories are not going to be quite on point anymore.
Jason Feifer: But I asked her for everyone else, what are we to do with this insight? How are we to reconcile the reality of our imperfect binds with the things we value as a culture and society? Because without truth, what are we? It’s the reason we’re having this fundamental argument as a culture right now about the dangers of a fractured world where people cannot even agree upon a set of facts. Broadly speaking, we need a reliable history that we can agree upon. Individually speaking, we need accountability and a true understanding of what we’ve come from. And so I said, “I feel somewhat like this should be something scandalous about letting people off the hook for having false memories or romanticizing their past in some way which is untrue because it feels like we’re supposed to hold to the truth of our history because otherwise, what are we? How do people react when you get to this kind of subject with them?”
Anne Wilson: Yeah, that’s a good question. And it’s a hard one to answer briefly and be responsible about it, right? Because I do think that it’s important for us to hold to the truth to some degree.
Jason Feifer: The reasons are obvious, false memories can lead to false accusations. In a courtroom, lives literally depend upon eyewitness testimony. Demagogues, meanwhile, I mentioned it before, win elections based on false stories of history and movements of hate are based on imagined grievances. We need truth and there is no easy answer for exactly how to get it. But Anne is ultimately optimistic because she says, “Look at the results of these memories of ours despite all their flaws.”
Anne Wilson: Like a lot of other systems where it sometimes leads to errors, most of the time it works for us, right? So most of the systems that we use like that are actually functional for survival and for making our way through the world.
Jason Feifer: We are here, aren’t we? We’ve built the modern world. We have progressed, not perfectly of course, nobody would claim that. But given time the system seems to work. The French historian, Ernest Renan once said, “Forgetfulness and I would say historical error are essential in the creation of a nation.” And why is that? Because our past, important as they are, can not define us indefinitely. And also sometimes something we did at one time, will play a different role at another time. Which brings us back to go from nation building to COVID nostalgia, but brings us back to COVID nostalgia. As Anne taught her college students remotely during the pandemic, she started priming them for this exact kind of memory evolution where one thing starts in one place and ultimately shifts and changes and has a completely different purpose later on. And that’s going to be true even if they may not appreciate it right now.
Anne Wilson: I’ve encouraged them to think about this past year from the vantage point of their future selves, because for a lot of university students, this is a terrible time. This isn’t what they want to be doing in their late teens and early 20s. So, and I think that it may feel like every day is just this mundane slog and it’s just so unpleasant and boring. And all of the things that you think are so fun about life or not so accessible to you, but to really think about the fact that you’re living through history right now. So the things that you’re learning about yourself, the things that you went through are probably going to be things that you tell your kids and your grandkids about. And some of the things that don’t seem meaningful right now probably will seem meaningful in the future.
Jason Feifer: And when Anne told me that, it reminded me of a story that Felipe told me about his childhood growing up in Columbia.
Felipe De Brigard: When I was a kid, there was a period in which there was… I forgot if it was a drought or I forgot exactly why, but as a result of that, they were, they called them [Spanish 00:40:17] in Spanish, which were periods in which the electric grid will be cut off and we will have two hours with no electricity, no electricity. So my dad had gotten this lamp, a Coleman lamp, like the ones that you use for camping. And my dad, my mom, and I would sit from six to 7:30 PM and play Rummikub. Now I was a teenager, right? And the last thing that a teenager wants to do is to sit for an hour and a half with his parents and play Rummikub. But now I’m not a teenager. And I think back of that time with nothing short of nostalgia. Now I bet my pinky finger that I was not happy during that. Maybe at some instances, but now of course I love it and I think back at that. I think that we’re going to have very similar experiences 20 years from now.
Jason Feifer: Because, think of it. What good is that memory to Felipe now if it is not a positive one? Decades from now, what good will our memory of COVID be to us if it is not a positive one? And I know, believe me, I know it feels problematic to say the past does not matter or that it can be rewritten. As a journalist, I hate that. I want to tell the truth and I want people to tell me the truth, but I have to say, I also came away from these conversations feeling optimistic because, well, first of all, this gives our bad experiences new meaning. When we go through hard times we can know, “I don’t have to carry this with me forever, I can make this useful later.” And then when we get to later, the thing that we should want most of all is not to be trapped in the past.
Jason Feifer: Like anything else. We want to take the parts that were useful from the past and leave the rest behind and then build. And I guess that’s what we do. Like everything about life, we have to live with the complexities, we want to remember, and we want to forget, we want to be truthful and we want to tell a useful fiction. We want memory and we want imagination and we have both. And if all of this is troubling to you, well, I guess that’s fine. Just give it some time. And that’s the episode. But Hey, while we’re talking about nostalgia, I’m curious. Do you think nostalgia is a good thing or a bad thing? I honestly always thought it was a bad thing for people, but Anne says that’s not actually the case. I will have her explain more, but first, do you want to feel more optimistic about the future?
Jason Feifer: I have a free audio course that can help you do just that. And you can find it by going to jasonfeifer.com and clicking on the free training button up at the top. While you’re there, you can also see more of my work and get in touch directly, I promise to reply. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram. I am @Heyfeifer, H-E-Y F-E-I-F-E-R. This episode was written and reported by me, Jason Feifer with additional research by Britta Lockton, sound editing by Alec Bayless. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The actor you heard reading that tweet at the beginning was Jia Maura. You can find her at jiamaura.com. Thanks also to Adam Soccolich and to my wife, Jen Miller for occupying our two year old, when he had a cold and couldn’t go to daycare on of course, the day I had to record this episode. Parenthood, it’s so fun, isn’t it?
Jason Feifer: This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that’s you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. That is cki.org. Alright, now back to that final question. Is nostalgia good or bad? Anne says, “Nostalgia gets a bad rap.”
Anne Wilson: In popular representation, nostalgia is often thought of as almost a pathology, like it’s a bad thing to live in the past or to romanticize the past. But in fact, psychologically it can be quite a positive resource, especially at times when things are tough in the present. So if people dip into positive past memories, say of spending time with loved ones at a time when they can’t be with loved ones in the present, that can often just be a little bit of a mood booster, it can make them feel better about where they’re at in the moment, because they at least get some of those positives from that. And although we often don’t think about positive past as being a future oriented kind of experience, there’s research that shows that the more people dip into nostalgic memories at the right times, the more they often feel energized and hopeful about the future.
Jason Feifer: So next time you’re feeling down, just start reminiscing about that great podcast episode you once listened to. Doesn’t that make everything feel better? That’s all for this time. Thanks for listening. I’m Jason Feifer, and let’s keep building for tomorrow.