Friday, May 31, 2013

After the things are destroyed and scattered...

When Homer Bailey made his Major League debut, the power went out in my house in the third or fourth inning. In a move that bordered on desperation, I grabbed a transistor radio that I had for emergencies and turned the dial to 700 as we once did back in Ohio. Sure, it was a longshot, but WLW had one of the strongest radio signals in the country. It turned out to be a good night for the signal, as Marty’s voice broke through the static and I listened to the Reds on radio all the way in Washington, DC.

Chris has a transistor radio that he listens to constantly. While the rest of us living in the 21st century rely on devices we still call phones, he carries around this ode to nostalgia, the incessant drone of sports talk radio crackling from its antiquated speakers. Yet there’s something whimsically romantic about it, about that crackle, a sort of symphony of radiowaves that reminds us of the past while transmitting realtime events. It’s not like Instagram, with its faux retro scheme, but a genuine artifact of simpler times in the realm of media.

The temperature was wonderfully warm a couple of nights ago; as soon as I arrived home from work I ventured out to our garden to redo part of the rock border, as rain had covered some of the rocks with dirt and birds had displaced others (as well as knocking off marigold blossoms!) While our internet signal reaches to the garden and I have watched a couple of Reds games out there, I was rather enjoying the peace of the evening devoid of screens and technology and chose to leave the laptop inside and savor the tranquility in being among the plants and nature. Soon, Chris came home with his transistor radio, and we listened to the Nationals-Orioles game while drinking summer beers and playing with rocks. We passed a simple, happy moment fringed with nostalgia, the good kind of nostalgia, full of the pleasure of happy memories and warmth, firmly rooted in realtime.

Unfortunately, much of the psychological research on nostalgia is located behind the paywalls of scholarly journals I cannot afford, and much of that has been limited to the field of consumer psychology, that field that researches ways to fool you into buying something you don’t need while appealing to your sense of nostalgia. However, my personal Google machine tells me that until recently, nostalgia was associated with an unhealthy emotional state. Indeed, the term itself is derived from the Greek words for “return” and “suffering.” Recent research suggests nostalgia can be a healthy emotion that eases loneliness, helps people get through difficult periods in their lives, and gives them a sense of stability through changing times. Feeling nostalgic is a way to maintain one’s sense of identity.

Of course, these are only psychological studies. The human brain is a vastly mysterious entity about which we know little, and empirical neurological research on nostalgia is scarce. I found this rather interesting article “Nostalgia: the similarities between immunological and neurologicalmemory” by Lawrence Steinman of Beckman Center for Molecular Medicine at Stanford in which he discusses the importance of memory in both the immune system and the nervous system. I particularly like Steinman’s reference to Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” from which he quotes “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” He talks briefly about how neurological memory shapes our personalities and goes on to discuss what our neurological and immune memories have in common. The article raises curiosity in my mind about nostalgia’s links to identity and the failure to recognize self as does one who is afflicted with prosopagnosia, a neurological phenomenon that shares features with autoimmune diseases when there is a failure of recognition of self. I’m not a neurologist or a psychologist, so I can only naively speculate and puzzle over the marvels and possibilities of the brain. I wonder if diseases such as Alzheimer’s actually make nostalgia come to life, and if that is the case, can’t too much nostalgia among seemingly healthy people be unhealthy? Isn’t dwelling on the past detrimental to a sound mental state?

Proust also wrote, “When from the distant past nothing remains, after the beings have died, after the things are destroyed and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, yet more vital, more insubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of everything else; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the immense architecture of memory.

The smell and taste of things. Smells bring back emotional memories better than the other senses because the olfactory bulb is part of the emotional center of the brain and has strong input into the amygdala, where emotions are processed. The sensory cues around us are also integral to how our brains map our movement through space. We have neurons called “place cells” that help us find our way in the world. While reading this article on The Atlantic Cities about how understanding our brain’s mapping capabilities can help us to better design city spaces, I began to wonder how our brains, whose place cell neurons have each learned how to care for one particular place, deal with the loss of those places, like when a ballpark is imploded out of existence.

These place cells are located within the brain’s hippocampus, which has its own memory system with unique characteristic functions. However, when it comes to emotional situations, the hippocampus interacts with the amygdala and acts in concert when memory and emotion meet. Knowing this, I couldn’t help but wonder if those neurons play any part in developing emotional attachments and if the destruction of places that have become a part of our identities (after the things are destroyed and scattered), like Riverfront Stadium was a part of mine (is, perhaps), has a disconcerting or detrimental effect on our brains. If a place like Riverfront Stadium, a place that was so important in my childhood, no longer exists, what happens to that neuron whose sole job was to know Riverfront Stadium? And why do I feel a longing to go to a baseball game there but I have no deep emotional connection to Riverfront’s replacement ballpark?

Marty Brennaman’s voice was not coming out of that transistor radio the other night, but the crackle of baseball was. It certainly fired up the part of my brain that produces nostalgia. Remembrance of things past and which can never be again. I suppose that’s simply a part of baseball. A part of life.

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