People possess an extraordinary range of emotional content. Emotions define our humanity, motivate our behavior, and dictate our social successes. Although BM Wells and I have harped on the beauties of logic and reason, we’ve yet to comment on the other side of the human coin – emotions. That is, until now.
Our emotional capacities are so interwoven with our personalities, it’s difficult to arrive at a clear, concise understanding of them. What our range of feelings is and why we express that range the way we do are products of our genetics and environment, respectively. Nature vs. nurture, the scientific version of Godzilla vs. King Kong. Molecular biologist John Medina gave an apt analogy for this relationship, saying that we are given a specific number of options for who we are through our DNA, much like a buffet table has various foods to choose from. What we choose, and the size of the portions, are determined by our environments. So you may be predisposed to be Mother Teresa, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune from becoming Twisted Sister.
But one emotion trumps all in its complexity and predominance. At least perceptibly, this emotion seems to be indigenous to humankind. Nostalgia. From Greek origin, nostalgia was originally the verb “nostos,” which means to return home. The etymology is a fitting metaphor because nostalgia encapsulates so many timeless human experiences – sorrow, joy, love, desire. Nostalgia is our way of inhaling the past and exhaling it into the present. It’s how we keep the dead alive.
We are a nostalgic species by design. Over the course of our brain’s evolution, humans have essentially developed three brains. To be sure, humans have one single brain, but the triune model is a great illustration of the way our brains evolved. The brain stem or “lizard brain” controls our autonomic activities like breathing and heart rate. Note: this is not an actual, anatomic reptilian brain, as is commonly misconstrued, but simply a primitive version of our brain that resembles that of a lizard. The second brain, or “mammalian brain,” controls the four Fs: fighting, feeding, fleeing, and fucking. Think of this part as the frat boy of our neurology.
The cortex, or “human brain,” rounds out the inside of our skull, controlling vision, symbolic reasoning and, of course, the completion of our emotional spectrum. The point is, during the long evolution of our brain, the human species towed along their collective and individual memories. As any animal must to survive in the wild, humans had to remember things, a skill that’s especially important for us because we are such colossal pussies compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Human younglings are the most useless organisms in life. They are highly vulnerable to predation, and completely unable to reproduce for over a decade. From an evolutionary perspective, they are the greatest investment known to man.
But that’s why nostalgia is important – it is the enlightenment of our functional need for memory. We are able to assign emotional value to our memories, which manifests into an ability to prioritize for the future. Not only does nostalgia provide clarity and meaning to the past, it gives us insight to what truly matters. Why do people have birthdays or wedding anniversaries? It’s because we recognize these things to be of utmost value – life and love. Nostalgia lets us hold on to those moments that, although temporally no more significant than any other moment, the gravity of their echoes resounds for the rest of our short lives. It is a neverending funeral procession for the things we cherish, a chance to relive the beautiful parts of life momentarily, even though their death looms over the celebration.
Find your next nostalgia. Hold onto it. It might be the anniversary of when you moved out of your parents, or paid off your debt. Or the birthday of your blog. For me, that day is tomorrow, when I first started dating my beautiful girlfriend (who is also a brain scientist). I know I’ll look back on February 2nd of 2012 for the rest of my life as one of the most important dates on the calendar. Even though I can never go back and relive the excited nervousness of that night, I plan on celebrating it by remembering how I felt and continuing to nurture those feelings. That’s nostalgia at its finest.