The Time Machine

In recent months, many of us have looked back with longing at our lives before COVID-19. For many of us, that world was one of bustle and activity — marked by scenes of packed restaurants, crowded subway cars, and chaotic playgrounds. In this audio essay, Shankar discusses our wistfulness for the world before the pandemic, and why such nostalgia can actually help to orient us toward the future.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.


Hey there. Shankar here. One of the rewarding aspects of our work at HIDDEN BRAIN is that we have the space to experiment with different ways of telling stories. Sometimes we need an hourlong podcast to fully explore a topic. Other times, a short episode can convey our thinking. Today's show is a short essay about one thing our minds do as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic.


VEDANTAM: Over the past few weeks, our TVs have become a time machine. They've transported us to our past, to scenes of crowded subway cars and chaotic playgrounds, where faces are unmasked and people sit shoulder to shoulder in sports stadiums. I have found myself marveling at movies where carefree characters hang out at music clubs. It makes me remember a time when I didn't have to think twice about hugging a friend or stopping by a cafe with a colleague. It's hard to imagine being so carefree again, even as many communities in the U.S. and across the globe make tentative steps to reopen.

The ache we feel for a pre-COVID world may seem unproductive. What's the value in looking back at lost freedoms and comforts? Why focus on things we cannot change? Of course, this is how the mind works.

Some time ago, I was chatting with Clay Routledge, a psychologist at North Dakota State University, for a HIDDEN BRAIN episode called "The Good Old Days." Clay studies nostalgia and how it affects the way we think about our lives. Many of us experience nostalgia as a bittersweet emotion. It combines the memory of good times with the ache of loss. You might think that people who are very nostalgic are more prone to sadness and depression, but Clay found that nostalgic reflection actually makes us optimistic. It reaffirms our social connections. And by remembering important things about the past, it lays out a hopeful vision for the future.

I've found in recent weeks that my own mind is going back further and further, sometimes to my distant childhood. Last week, I cooked a recipe I learned decades ago from a long dead aunt. I remembered how after placing food before me, she always thought to place some food on her windowsill for birds to eat. When we remember people who have been kind to us, when we remember happy times, we're not merely engaging in fantasy; we're reminding ourselves of our place in the world. Nostalgia can give us renewed appreciation for the people and places that constitute our lives.

A number of years ago, Clay surveyed a group of adults in Britain who had been children during World War II. The war was a time of great upheaval for them, as their country was bombed and family members were sent off to the battlefront. But these people didn't remember the period with horror; they remembered it with nostalgia. They told Clay that it was a time of deep distress, but it was also a moment of profound meaning. It revealed to them what was truly important in their lives - their connections to other people. There was so much movement, so much upheaval, one person told Clay, yet through it all, there's a strong sense of belonging, of security, of family.

Perhaps you understand this yourself. One thing many of us have realized these past few months is how much we value the people in our lives. Maybe you've had a Zoom happy hour with friends you haven't seen in years. Maybe you've taken long walks with family and noticed new things about your community. Maybe you found yourself just sitting and doing nothing and connecting with yourself. For those of us who lead frenetic lives, all these can be novel experiences.

One useful exercise to practice in these times is to close your eyes and ask yourself what you will feel nostalgic about when you look back on the early months of 2020. What will you smile about? What will you miss?


VEDANTAM: Thinking about the present through the eyes of your future self can tell you what is important and beautiful in your life right now. This exercise won't change how hard the pandemic has been for many people. It won't make all the losses disappear. But it will do what the war did for those people in Britain. It will remind you what you should be grateful for today.


VEDANTAM: This bonus episode was produced by Tara Boyle. If there's someone in your life who might enjoy it, please share it with them. If your friend is new to podcasting, please help them subscribe to HIDDEN BRAIN.


VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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