‘New’ is a strong force in marketing but nostalgia is even more powerful. One of the most famous scenes in Mad Men was when Don Draper described the new Kodak wheel for projecting a series of photo slides as a ‘time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again… to a place where we know we are loved.’
I was reminded of this when I went to a performance at the Theatre Royal Winchester last night. Memory Point(s) by Platform 4 is a mystery tour of the theatre in which the audience encounter images and sounds that create and trigger memories. The work is inspired by work done with people with early onset dementia in Southampton and looks at how memories work, the importance of music to memory and what happens as we succumb to dementia.
A small group of us were taken on a disorientating journey through various public and backstage parts of the building. Not knowing exactly where you were made each encounter vivid. It might be opening a locker to reveal a tableau scene, a photo in a frame, a snatch of music on headphones, the glimpse from the lighting box of a musician in the auditorium. Seeing them again, perhaps in a more complete context, sometimes in a fragmentary way, recreated the way in which memory works, particularly when it starts to fade.
To ourselves, our lives are not simple chronological journeys from cradle to grave, a might appear in an obituary, but a jumble of sounds, images and feelings, often from occasions when we were especially happy like a holiday or a wedding, that have no relation to the distance of time involved. Just as Don Draper describes a Kodak slide show.
Like advertisers, our brains use nostalgia to make ourselves feel good. We rewrite our complicated lives as a construct of memories in which life was simpler and happier than it is now or ever really was.
There was one special moment in the show when we came across a doll’s house in which each room opened up and, like one’s brain, was filled randomly with the various old photos (always of people smiling) that we had seen.
If we are unfortunate enough to get Alzheimers, we lose our connection with the recent past and the strong memories from the distant past take over, then they too fade. The climax of Memory Point(s), when our party had arrived on the stage, was a dance that, for me, conjured up the desperation caused by the fragmentation of the memories by which our brain defines who we are.
The power of music to evoke nostalgia is something advertisers were aware of long before researchers discovered its importance to those suffering from dementia. The dancer eventually achieves calmness from the lasting memory of music.
The experience was, and I use the word advisedly, unforgettable.