Your post elicited my own nostalgic experience. It is as if you mentioning Micronauts acted as a chemical trail to other memories such other action figures, comics, Choose Your Own Adventure, D&D, and Fighting Fantasy. I remember vividly being at home during the summer break in 1982, lying on a bed, watching music videos on a small box television, and playing Final Fantasy/Sorcery books. It was one of those moments in time that is seared in my mind and brings a smile.
Thinking about the past in this way initiates a sub-routine program in myself. This is not simply a bunch of electrons firing off, there is an actual change in my mood which has been documented in people who are exposed to nostalgia. There is no doubt that computers are chemical creations (drawing a circuit board alters the state of it) and I would propose that establishing nostalgia is like the etching of a circuit board in our nervous system.
We know that nostalgia makes us emotionally settled but what is it particularly about nostalgia that has such a positive chemical experience? How does nostalgia get programmed into us? What are its qualities? I have discerned what I think are the three emotional/chemical qualities that make up nostalgia.
The nostalgic event or object and its subsequent memory needs to: 1) be easily accessible; 2) give comfort; 3) contain possibilities.
Accessibility or the chemical power of appeal is the first condition. We do not become nostalgic for things that tax us or have complex meaning. People don’t talk about nostalgia relating to the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David because they are layered and possess different angles of understanding. The feeling of awe/witnessing beauty is possibly at the opposite end to nostalgia. For something to be accessible/relatable it needs to be simple to understand. This would explain why children find shows they grew up with to be nostalgic because they possessed appealing tales / tropes or Good vs Evil, Coming of Age, Rags to Riches. These stories remain with us because they are so easy to understand.
Belonging or the chemical power of comfort is the second condition. The feeling of belonging to something greater than oneself. It might be a romantic song, a smell of home cooking, or the image of a toy that brings one back to happy times as a child. A sub-quality of this chemical is the role of ritual intimacy such as playing with one’s favorite toys, going to a familiar arcade, or re-reading a comic book.
Possibility or the chemical power of adventure is the third condition which acts as a contrasting and complimentary taste to comfort. The nostalgic object/event contains an inherent fantasy where we find a magical quality of possibilities. While it mimics the second condition by making oneself feel they are part of something greater, it contrasts with its sense of wonder. The object/event could be nerdy (I remember flipping through the Computer Shopper tome imagining what machine I would one day purchase) or not (falling in love or becoming the most popular kid) but it needed to lead to some new state.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
Nostalgia is a chemical mixture that blends complimentary and contradictory ingredients. For it to work, it needs to be readily accessible or relatable, provide a sense of comfort, and provide a contradictory sense of fantasy. One cannot entertain adventure unless emotionally ready for it and it is readily available.
The pinball/video arcades of the 1970s-80s possess these three qualities for those of us who grew up with them. They had to be accessible (you needed to be able to get to them and afford to play), made you feel comfortable (remaining in the same location so that routine could be developed, meeting friends there), and offer the play of possibility (experiencing new games or going further in a game). The same was experienced going into record stores, comic book stores, and the old VHS rental stores. It is little wonder storefronts can be images of nostalgia for us and others of our generation.
Those who were born in the early 1970s (and sharing other demographic qualities) share in that cohort’s chemical wiring of nostalgia. It is like we were collectively exposed to the same nervous system/circuit board wiring and explains how how a cohort easily relates and communicates with one another in its own language. The language we were exposed to is not any more exceptional than any other.
But it has made a resurgence. The 1980s pop culture has re-inserted itself into the modern day and current young people are being exposed to our nostalgia, the most striking example being this past spring’s movie blockbuster Ready Player One. This resurgence is most surprising to me because it is not just Gen-X pushing their memories (like it was with RPO) but its enthusiastic adoption by Millennials.
I have three examples of this:
RHEMA is a modern L.A. based band who put out a great song/video in 2017 as a tribute montage to John Hughe’s 1980s movies.
Stranger Things by the Duffer Brothers was released in 2016 even though the brothers were born in 1984. The amount of 1980s references in the first two seasons has filled piles of article posts. The video below that talks about how Stranger Things conveyed much of its overt nostalgia through the use of 1980s toys.
The book Life Moves Pretty Fast was released in 2016 by Hadley Freeman, who was born in 1978. Her nostalgic memoir of 1980s movies is remarkable as she was only six years old when she would have seen Ghostbusters which is her signpost movie for her. She recounts how that movie and other 1980s movies made such an impact on her as a young girl.
What I appreciated about Freeman’s book was she looked at these movies in totally new ways. The critical thinking that she brought refreshed that era for me. Freeman thankfully did not fall into the mistake of deconstructing (through a feminist lens) the movies to make them meaningless, but instead adds a new layer of appreciation.
Freeman and the Duffers were too young to get the 1980s influences directly first hand. In their interviews they readily admit the influence of the once ubiquitous-VHS tape made on them. The VHS tapes (Freeman’s book cover invokes old VHS sticker labels) provided a cyber-memory of pop culture before YouTube was around. The tapes’ hard shell, linear format, and tedious rewind requirements made them a slow but steady method to transmit pop culture, chemically tracing for these younger people a sense of nostalgia for a time slightly before them.
I suspect that the VHS tape format allowed for those 1980s movies to have a staying power that will not be duplicated. While the internet allows for videos to be easily accessed, parsed, and replayed, the immense variety available appears to make the any single movie less impactful over time. How will the current generation create their own nostalgic chemical reactions? I am positive that it will happen but am at a loss what the method will be.
Nostalgia is available to all of us all of the time. It does not need to depend upon pop culture or life-changing technology but can take place even in the mundane, wherever the chemical concoction of accessibility, belonging, and possibilities are present.
I have found myself feeling nostalgia for places and times like sitting on a beach (accessibility/appeal) with a book (possibilities/adventure), and listening to music (belonging/comfort) or being in a meditation retreat (accessibility/appeal), in a cozy retreat cabin (belonging/comfort), and taking on the challenges of meditation itself (possibilities/adventure). While these experiences of nostalgia are personal and private they are no less meaningful. The chemical reaction of nostalgia holds true even when it is not shared.
Thanks again for the invitation to share my thoughts on nostalgia, an emotional chemical that has been so pervasive in my life.
To your own future nostalgia,