“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.“
“Everything was better in the old days…“
Know this saying? How often has it made our eyes roll, yet? – And how often have we caught ourselves in thinking it? Even if we suffered from peer pressure or some teacher’s despotism when we were children, as adults we long for the lightheartedness of our childhood and youth. Parents of adolescents think their present difficulties much more serious than their former, when problems were sleepless nights and stomach aches. Older people, even if they experienced hardship and privation, nostalgically remember the times when they were young and healthy.
The French author Anatole France lived in the 19th century; he couldn’t know of the findings of modern brain research. Still, he found the right words to describe this phenomenon.
The Constructive Mind
Why do we transfigure our past into the “good old times”? In order to answer this question it is helpful to know something about of the function of episodic memory. Our ability to retrieve past experiences allows us a kind of “mental time travel”. However, memories aren’t filed as consistent and exact mental images of certain episodes, even though it seems to us our memories are stored like a kind of movie recording. Rather episode are retained in separate elements. When retrieved, memories are formed by a recombination of these discrete information units. This makes our brains exceedingly flexible and efficient, it gives rise to memory errors though. We don’t have to be police officers or prosecutors to be able to imagine the problems arising from different witnesses’ statements of people who witnessed the exact same incident and remember it differently.
Protective Function of Memory Errors
Even if our memory is fragmentary and defective: The constructive functionality of our memories accomplishes an important task. It protects us against bitterness and depression. A mental excursion into the “good old days” typically is emotional, intense, and lively. We play the lead ourselves, and negative situations become better and better the longer we dwell on them. That way, our brains shelter us from bad mood.
Now, should we just wait in the confidence of the automatic transformation of all our negative experiences into positive ones? We can surely depend on the universal functioning of our brains; nevertheless, we can contribute to our experience of the here and now as good days: meeting friends and splitting ours sides laughing, dancing our hearts out, coming together with others and having wonderful times…
This way, today will become “good old times” even without memory errors.
Bartsch, T. (Ed.). (2013). Gedächtnisstörungen: Diagnostik und Rehabilitation. Berlin: Springer.
Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2008). Nostalgia past, present, and future. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(5), 304-307.