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Nostalgia, Memory, Experience and Mental Disorder

There’s a recent article in the New York Times about nostalgia and its role in human psychology. It’s an interesting article in which the author takes us briefly through the idea of nostalgia, melancholia and its relationship to psychiatric diagnoses. The prevailing wisdom is that nostalgia is a bad thing, making us feel lonelier and more isolated, and can lead to mental disease. But that’s changing, in large part, thanks to Constantine Sedikides, who pioneered the field of psychological study.

Actually, it turns out, nostalgia is good for your mental health, allowing you to feel comfort in strange surroundings. By reminding you of troubled times before and showing you that you’ve overcome them just fine. Or by reminding you of good past experiences. And with friends, reminding you of the experiences you’ve shared. Nostalgia can cheer you up and bring you happiness when you’re down, instead of the other way around.

The natural conclusion, which they posit in the article later on, is that one strategy is to purposefully create situations which will build nostalgia. A related field, which Daniel Khaneman talks about here at TED. Point is since we never recall experiences truly accurately, we should instead strategize for optimal memories, not experience. (Side note: Daniel Khaneman recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics but he’s actually a Psychologist. He’s got a book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that goes into lots of detail about the strange ways in which our mind really works, versus how we think it does.

My favorite line in the original article is “Military physicians speculated that its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries abroad was due to earlier damage to the soldiers’ ear drums and brain cells by the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.” This story is from 1688, but nostalgia has been observed around the world across human history. Most people say they experience nostalgia at least once a week.

A recent podcast is along the same lines, The Memory Palace: Origin Stories. It’s about a man thinking back on the stories his family used to tell. They were mostly set around the time the matriarch and patriarch (his grandparents) met. And eventually the stories were shortened to a few words that, for someone who knows the stories very well, would bring on all of the old nostalgia, a warm feeling and a smile. I particularly like the Origin Stories angle, since it’s not far from those stories to a cultural Mythos, if the experience is widespread enough. From legend and myth to faith and religion is a conceivable jump, looking back in the history of mankind. You can see its potential role in superstition, shamanistic practices, ancestor worship and even polytheism. A couple of good books, “The Evolution of God” and “The Faith Instinct” speak to this, arguing that this process is entirely natural. More reason why nostalgia shouldn’t be sloughed off as just a road to depression.

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Finding My Old Parisian Neighborhood

The first time I visited Paris was my first real trip abroad unchaperoned and fully in control of my own destiny. That journey helped start me on the path to who I am today. I have a lot of great memories of that trip. Now I’m back for a few days and I’ll try to find out what’s changed – both here and within myself – and rediscover my younger self in the process. This is part of a series of my reminiscences of Paris.

After wandering around a bit I found my old neighborhood. The place I remember from a dozen years ago is still right where I left it. I didn’t consciously start out the night trying to find the place, but as I meandered I suddenly realized that I was really close to where I’d had those experiences. I guess on some level I was searching the place out.

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Lafayette I Have Come

I’ve returned to Paris after 12 years. One of the formative trips of my travel style and of my life for that matter. So coming back here gives me the chance to revisit myself in a way, too. Like the military man of World War I, paying tribute to the Marquis de La Fayette who, during the American Revolution shaped our country, I have come to Paris.

There’s definitely some of the old snooty Paris I remember. Like when I sat down at a place, asked for a menu and was told it was not a restaurant indignantly in French and nearly shooed away. Maybe a cafe only I thought as I stood up to leave. Then noticed the “Restaurant Boulangerie” sign above the awning. It was this attitude to which my friend muttered “frog” under his breath last time I was here.

But that’s the exception and definitely not the rule. Most people here are very friendly to foreigners, once you engage them. Like the waitress where I ended up eating that night. She apologized for her poor English (in fairly good English) and helped me navigate the menu. When she wanted to describe her favorite dish – the daily special not on the menu – she dragged the sandwich board over and walked through what it was. Madagascar cuisine. Not particularly French (she also apologized for being a bad French and not having a French food as her favorite), but very hip nonetheless. And very tasty too.

Some things which must have been here but I didn’t notice. Like the North African market by my hotel. And all the other foreigners who are not here for vacation. The diversity of this city and this neighborhood is astounding with dozens of different cultures coming face to face. Lots of evidence of France’s colonial past and their hold over their former territories. Unlike the Spanish who tried to assimilate the cultures and genes. And unlike the English who tried to displace the native populations. France had a very laissez-faire attitude, preferring more of a partnership than a more heavy-handed rule.

Has it changed? Sure. There’s wifi, electric cars for rent by the hour, you pay in Euro instead of French Francs. But I don’t think I can get a good feeling for any changes that are deeper than that. My memory is too hazy and my observations too superficial with the time I have here. So sadly you’ll have to get that information from someone else.

And there are changes in myself. I’m less apt to visit a tourist site than just meander around. To practice cultural tourism at the street level – as it is now being defined, not how it was shaped in the past. I used to force myself to do the normal tourist route and try to see the famous sites and scenes, no matter how much they didn’t interest me. But I don’t any longer, for instance I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysees this past trip.

And I don’t try as hard to act like a respectful tourist. Instead I’m just myself with deference to the unknown, like the language and mannerisms. Respecting the culture but not trying to eat it all at once like the proverbial elephant. And not as ready to assess an entire culture based on experiences from a limited exposure (despite my treatment in this post to try to categorize everything).

And I’ve learned to break myself of the habit of being too prepared. I used to pile everything I thought I might possibly use into my bag. But I quickly learned that made it impossibly large and heavy. For more on that, see my series on travel skills and packing tips.

But I do still love discovery and travel for its own sake. Meandering is something I used to space between doing what I thought I ought to do. My game was to get lost and then find myself when I got nervous. Now I don’t worry about nerves and just trust that I can either find my way or ask someone. Some of that has to do with the technology I travel with, but some of it is just confidence that everything will work itself out even if it takes a bit longer than I’m expecting. That attitude has served me well and gotten me to some great spots that most people never see or know about.

But there are changes that I don’t like. I’ve never thought twice about a several hour detour just to see something I wanted to. For me getting there really is the fun part. But those trips are much fewer and farther between now. That’s a shame because it’s almost as promising a prospect as it used to be. I just don’t make the opportunities like I used to. True, I travel a lot more now, but I’m not sure I’m not missing something here and there. Long road trips with good music and audiobooks used to be a favorite activity of mine. I miss those days, and maybe I can recapture the feeling of meaning and purpose some other way.

But what about the places I remember so fondly from my first time here? I’m sure you’re asking that question, as I was. I guess I was avoiding those places. I didn’t want to find that they were gone or that they weren’t the same. But even worse I didn’t want to find that they were the same but horrible, with my mind polishing them to a shine and setting them on the windowsill of my memory. For my last night in the city I went back to my old haunts.

Paris: A Rememberence

The first time I visited Paris was my first real trip abroad unchaperoned and fully in control of my own destiny. That journey helped start me on the path to who I am today. I have a lot of great memories of that trip. Now I’m back for a few days and I’ll try to find out what’s changed – both here and within myself – and rediscover my younger self in the process. This is part of a series of my reminiscences of Paris.

It’s December 31st, 1999 and a 22-year-old me stands in the Paris night watching the millennium count down on the Eiffel Tower. The crowd, standing together tightly enough that most are sweating despite the chill, bubbles in anticipation like champagne when shaken.  It hits 0…the year 2000 has dawned. The cork holding the crowd is released and a hundred thousand bodies jump, dance, scream, throw up their hands and complete the metaphor. A new year…century…millennium has dawned; a thousand years has ticked off the clock in a second.

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