August 14, 2021

Nostalgia is Trending

4 min read
By Khairunnisa Mohamedali PhD

You may have seen Deep Nostalgia making waves on social media last week. Launched by DNA-based ancestry-tracking service My Heritage, Deep Nostalgia uses AI to animate faces in family photos. It has, expectedly, become rich fodder for memes, with people animating photos of great-grandparents and famous composers, but also the infamous Ronaldo statue.

This turn to animating photos of our ancestors isn’t a coincidence. It points to a deeper shared need: Nostalgia has been trending since lockdowns kicked in during the first part of last year.

In spring of 2020, Spotify saw a spike in the popularity of old songs. Toto’s Africa had a renaissance, as did Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles (played up to 63,000 times a day in May). Queen, Elton John and Bryan Adams are also suddenly trending, in case you’re looking for a playlist.

Those of us who are missing the sounds of our colleagues (including the office dog) have been offered this gem, so we can immerse ourselves in the soothing ambience of a buzzing office. ’90s and ’00s newsletters have been launched to take us back to the days of Tamagotchi’s, Ouija Boards, and Pop Tarts. More than half of us have turned to familiar, nostalgic TV shows for comfort during the last year.

Nostalgia is trending because we reach for nostalgia in times of crisis. It offers comfort in the face of loss, anxiety, isolation, or uncertainty. Nostalgia buffers us against boredom, helps us combat loneliness, jumpstarts our desire to go after key life goals, and gives us the confidence to act on that desire. It also helps us feel more socially connected, loved, and protected. It makes for powerful stuff.

Nostalgia is trending because we reach for nostalgia in times of crisis. It offers comfort in the face of loss, anxiety, isolation, or uncertainty.

The rise of nostalgia has had me thinking about memory. Here at The Smarty Train, we think about memory all the time. How it works. What we remember. What we forget. And what that means for learning.

Nostalgia is the positive, rose-tinted spin we put on our memories. A wistful longing for a happier time. It doesn’t matter whether the time we long for was actually a happier time or not. In fact, it’s quite likely we’re misremembering or selectively remembering the good old days. Some people think back longingly to things like their school years, but they wouldn’t necessarily want to relive them.

Let’s therefore start with the obvious: our memories are notoriously unreliable. For those of us who’ve misplaced our keys, neglected to pick up milk at the grocery store, or forgotten a birthday, a poor memory can be relatively harmless. But poor memory can be damaging: 73% of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence were based on eyewitness testimony. One third of those had two or more mistaken eyewitnesses.

Why are our memories so poor? Because, it turns out, our brains are wired to forget.

Simply put, if our brains remembered everything perfectly, we’d be paralysed by information. Psychologist Daniel Schacter has a useful analogy: imagine if our brains worked like a Google search engine. When you tried to remember that one thing that happened on your sixth birthday, your brain would be slammed with about 7,010,000,000 results in 0.52 seconds. Forget cognitive overload: a brain with perfect memory would have been terrible for the survival of our species. Our ancestors wouldn’t have made it out of the Savannah if they’d had to parse through billions of search results on ‘how to survive a lion encounter’ in tenths of a second, while a lion stared them down. The downside when it comes to L&D is, people who undergo traditional learning only remember about 5% of what they are taught.

“Our ancestors wouldn’t have made it out of the Savannah if they’d had to parse through billions of search results on ‘how to survive a lion encounter’ in tenths of a second.”

So, to better understand how memory works, it’s helpful to understand how—and what—our brains forget, before moving to what our brains remember. Until recently, neuroscientists focused on passive processes for forgetting: the decay of a memory because our neurons encoding that specific memory died, the connections between neurons frayed, our memory-making systems failed, or contextual cues that help us retrieve a memory were lost. However, recently neuroscientists have started focusing on active forgetting. They’ve been finding our brains can be more like scythes that actively cut away the overgrowth, so the lawn always looks exactly the same: trim and clean.

Our brain’s natural inclination, then, is to forget. Our brain actively forgets details and specifics. It only remembers the gist of things. It remembers a thing only when it determines that thing is worth remembering. Because it is important. Because it is something we use frequently, or we used recently, or we are likely to need again. Because it is different or markedly stands out from our other memories. Because it is anchored in our senses—smell, taste, sight, sound. Office sounds, old TV shows and music, and Pop Tarts, for example.

And this is the crux to what makes for good learning design and good development programme design. Good design is the process of making something stick by increasing the odds they pass through our brain’s filtering system. Good learning is good memory-making.

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