Streaming Nostalgia: The comfort of watching childhood TV shows during a crisis.
After graduating college, I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands. I decided to binge watch something completely different than my usual Sex and the City marathon, my favorite childhood shows: Totally Spies! (Amazon Prime), Danny Phantom (Hulu), and of course, Avatar the Last Airbender (Netflix).
At first it was strange to watch a show I haven’t seen since I was a kid. But when I heard the unmistakable theme introduction by Katara on Avatar, I felt a new soothing comfort that I haven’t felt for a very long time: nostalgia.
Matt Johnson, PhD, professor of consumer neuroscience and author of Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes our Brains, said that we can’t remember the past directly. All we have is a memory, a reconstruction of the past.
“When it comes to nostalgia, we're conjuring up a memory from what feels like a categorically different time period that we lived through,” Johnson said. “Nostalgia is almost by definition, a positive memory, a positive feeling that conjures up this warm glow of the past up into the present moment.”
Anything that reminds us of our past can initiate nostalgia, even watching childhood TV shows. But the interesting thing about memory is that it’s an associative network, Johnson explained. Once you bring one memory back, all the memories connected to it come back too.
“If you are watching an old TV show that you haven't seen since you were five years old, haven't even thought about it in ten years, maybe more, and you watch the show, all of these old memories from that era will come back into mind,” Johnson said.
Catherine Moore, an Emerson College senior, hadn’t watched What’s New Scooby Doo?, her favorite show, since she was around 8 to 10 years old, until she watched it recently on Netflix. Memories of her watching the DVDs in her mom’s car and throwing Scooby Doo themed sleepovers came back to her.
“Once I would watch an episode I'd be like, ‘Wait, I remember this episode so well,” Moore said. “I remember who it was. I remember the monster, how the monster’s working. It was cool because I didn't realize that I held on to all of that.”
In his Psychology Today article, Johnson said there are health benefits in engaging with nostalgia, including lowering stress, and protecting against depression and anxiety.
Moore said, “Obviously our lives were simpler when we were younger because I feel like I didn't deal with any kind of mental health stuff or not frequently. I felt like I was happier. The world was just easier and everything felt achievable.”
Thinking back to the past gives us a general warm, positive glow, but it also gives us a greater sense of self-continuity.
“Looking back helps us make sense of where we've been and how we've gotten to where we are,” Johnson said in the article. “It helps us tell a meaningful story of our life; how all of these discrete events and experiences fit together in a coherent narrative.”
I came out as bisexual in college, but it was only when I rewatched Danny Phantom that I realized my sexual identity had long been a part of me. Ghost rockstar Ember came on screen with her electric blue hair, black eyeliner, and rockstar attitude, and I felt feelings about my sexuality that I remember feeling a long time ago, too. In retrospect, I always had an attraction to women. I just couldn’t articulate it to my pre-teen self at the time.
Escaping to the past has its benefits, but that shouldn’t mean ignoring the present, especially now. Johnson said there is a negative connotation with escapism, but there shouldn’t be one towards nostalgia. He believes there should be a balance between living in the present moment and deliberately going back to nostalgize, instead of staying in the past and ruminating in it.
The COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment rate, and police brutality protests make our present very scary, and we might find comfort in the past. My childhood TV shows were always predictable. The spies defeat evil cookie manufacturer Passion Patties, Danny Phantom brings Ember back to the ghost portal, and Aang saves the world. As a recent graduate who doesn’t know what their future will look like, I find comfort in the familiar plot lines.
“In Scooby Doo, there's also that comfort when you're a kid of believing that the bad guys get what's coming to them. In this world there's just a lot of bad and it all goes unpunished so often,” Moore said. “Recently when I was watching the show, I found comfort in the fact that the bad guy was always unmasked and everything was fine. There's not really much of that comfort anymore in the real world right now.”
Johnson explained that in “normal circumstances,” when we’re not in a pandemic and experiencing turmoil in the country, we can form new memories. We don’t necessarily have that same ability now. But we can go back and re-experience these moments through the warm lens of nostalgia.
“Our memories are to be treasured, and our memories are sacred,” he said. “Maybe now, more than ever, with an uncertain future, and a difficult current moment, the memories we've had and our ability to replay them are more important than ever.”