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James Ferragut, Published August 24 2013

Ferragut: Embrace, cherish nostalgia

Uninvited, nostalgia hit me a few days ago. I was driving to work and I noticed a letter in the logo of Fargo’s South Plaza strip mall was missing. It read “ outh Plaza.” The missing letter prompted a look at each business name. I saw, as if for the first time, the striped barber pole of The South Plaza Barber Shop.

That’s where I got my hair cut when I was in junior high. The old images came back: the counter behind the barber’s chairs cluttered with Vitalis, Brylcreem, Crew Cut Wax, scissors, razors and combs. I remembered trashy men’s magazines, three chairs manned by stiff barbers; walking into the shop blinded by fogged glasses.

Then it was over and back to business.

That day I heard a story on NPR that began with former University of North Carolina professor Constantine Sedikides talking about his move to England’s South Hampton University. Sedikides felt pangs of nostalgia – memories of friends, food, landscapes and smells of his former home in Chapel Hill.

One of his colleagues told Sedikides he must be depressed because he was living in the past. The doctor countered, “Not so, I live my life in forward … but thinking about my past gives my life continuity, makes me feel good about myself and gives me strength to move forward.”

The conversation eventually inspired Sedikides to pioneer the scientific study of nostalgia, including a comprehensive project called “The South Hampton Nostalgia Scale.” Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University and psychologists around the world helped Sedikides conduct experiments on adults.

Nostalgia, (nostos and algos in Greek) was coined by a 17th-century physician. It was believed soldiers’ wallowing in memories, and their desire to return home from the front, was a mental disorder: depression, a “neurological disease of demonic cause.” Nineteenth and 20th-century classifications included “immigrant psychosis” and “mentally repressive compulsive disorder.”

But Sedikides’ research found that nostalgia counteracts loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous and more tolerant. Couples feel closer and look happier when they share memories. On cold days or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to feel warm. When people speak wistfully of the past, they become more optimistic, even inspired about the future. People who revel in nostalgia are better at dealing with death.

Regardless of race, culture or economic status, the foci of nostalgia are universal: friends, family, weddings, songs, travel, sunsets, school, food, entertainment, dating. Nostalgia can happen at least once a week, with half of us experiencing it three or four times a week.

Smell is a direct line to nostalgia. The science: “A smell can bring on a flood of memories and influence moods. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling that it’s called the ‘emotional brain,’ smell can call up memories and powerful emotional responses instantaneously.”

When you’re young and you smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or a moment. Your brain forges a link between a smell and a memory, like associating chlorine with summers at the pool. When you encounter the smell again, the hard-wired link can elicit a memory or mood.

I’m a victim of nostalgia. I often “wax nostalgic.” But my eyes are on the horizon in the pursuit of life’s adventure. I don’t listen to classic rock. Hell, I lived it when it was real. Golden oldies? I’ll pass. And my love and passion for The Beatles is rooted in the social, cultural and historical impact they’ve had on the world; and it’s that knowledge that informs every note of every song as much as nostalgia.

Thanks to Sedikides, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be: Nostalgia is a good thing. So try it, use it, cherish it. But keep your eyes up and look to the horizon. Life beckons.

Ferragut is a marketing consultant and regular contributor to The Forum’s opinion and commentary pages. Email jferragut@gmail.com