The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, Time and Ageing
by Douwe Draaisma, translated by Liz Waters
Yale University Press
As a professor in the history of psychology, Douwe Draaisma seems perfectly placed to write about memory, the access we have to our own usually sparsely documented histories. This book is about memory and memories of the aging, the old. When people reach their sixties and seventies and beyond, what do they remember? And what do they forget?
In this relatively short book, Draaima deals with both aspects of memory in the aging mind: the forgetting, and the remembering.
He is reassuring on the forgetting. After reviewing various memory techniques (most of dubious value) he writes: “However active your lifestyle, however varied your existence, your memory will gradually decline with age. This is perfectly natural. Anyone who still has the memory of a twenty-year-old at the age of seventy is not entirely normal.”
Everyone is annoyed by not being able to remember something, but the worry has increased with the increased awareness of various forms of dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease. Draaima reiterates the statistics—for people over 65, less than 5% are likely to be stricken, and even having a parent who has suffered from dementia still doesn’t get you to 10%.
The difference in symptoms is the difference between forgetting where you put your car keys and forgetting what your car keys are for. “The vast majority of people who turn up at memory clinics give such a detailed account of all the things that have slipped their minds recently that it is clear they have no reason to worry.”
On the remembering however, Draaisma finds some anomalies and mysteries. He carefully reviews a number of studies (his and others) to conclude that yes, the old tend to remember the distant past better than the recent past, and more specifically, their most vivid memories cluster around their 20th year. Other memories that often remain vivid are of “firsts”--first kiss, first eclipse, first day of school etc.
He is thorough on the phenomena: how the focus on the past increases with age, for instance. He writes about residents of an old folks home in their 80s and 90s who no interest in their present, not even people around them. Their listlessness turns to vibrant interest when shown obsolete artifacts and photos from their youth. They even begin to interact—members of such group found that they came from the same town and even went to the same school around the same time.
His research affirms that when the reminiscence effect (as he calls it) "attains its full force, memories will return to which you have long been denied access. These are memories that really do slumber.”
His research also suggests that as time goes on, memories emerge more and more as stories. He interviewed centenarians who hadn’t written autobiographies, “yet the stories of their lives have the usual cast of characters and twists and turns that we see in the autobiographical genre. The event that started it all, the moment that brought a complete change of course, the meeting that was to have important consequences, the lesson for life, even the insults that seem to make so much more of an impression in youth—they emerge of their own accord when the centenarians look back over their long lives.”
Draaisma recognizes that evolutionary explanations for this phenomenon are inadequate, but doesn’t offer a persuasive alternative. A different kind of psychologist (like James Hillman) would suggest a search for meaning, a deepening of soul, a completion. The anomalies are found in what people remember (or think they are remembering) and how they characterize the past. The mystery is in why we are helplessly borne back into the past as our future disappears.