Nostalgia has always fascinated me. Not only the memories that induce it, but its very nature. When I look back on my own halcyon days, I sometimes wonder whether I would feel the same wistfulness if I "edited" those happy recollections. In most cases, nostalgia has three factors: time, place and people. One of these—time that has passed—is a constant in all nostalgic memories.
What if I fooled around with the other two factors?
To test this, I go back to my childhood. I'm playing with friends in my school's playground. It's a memory that always makes me smile. What if I strip away all the running children and the supervising teachers from that place, leaving the equipment behind? Does the memory still elicit the same response? To some extent, because there's sentiment attached to the swings and slides. However, I feel that the essence is missing, only to be filled by the people whom I vanished.
What if I transported the people to another place and have them play games there? That's what I do, picturing them at a vast green field. This version of the memory feels dream-like, because I've never run around with my friends in a field like that. Although it paints a pretty picture, it never happened, so this is more like an imaginary scenario than a memory.
Wait, what if this event never happened? What if I only had the happy feeling it left behind? Let's say I'm plugged to a machine which induces the pleasure from my childhood memory without ever living through it. It might feel good at first, but eventually I'll feel empty. To those familiar with The Matrix franchise, this idea might ring a bell. It originates from a well-known thought experiment called "experience machine", proposed by philosopher Robert Nozick, who hypothesised that most people would choose to experience the events over connecting to the machine. Later studies have shown that the choice depends on the nature of the scenario, with a tendency to connect to the machine for painful ones and experience those which are pleasurable.
All this mental gymnastics later, I return to the memory in its original, untainted form. The contentment I've been missing during these thought experiments comes back in full force. I decide that I prefer the original over the rest, because it reflects what I considered was the best of both worlds—favourite people and place—in my childhood. Perhaps, it's because when recalling precious memories, we try to remember every single detail. And isn't nostalgia about cherishing memories to the fullest?
Psychology Today (Mar 13, 2019). Pleasure or Reality? The Experience Machine Debate
Adhora Ahmed daydreams too much. Send her reality checks at email@example.com