Who we are is what we remember of our past. Our memory is constructed chronologically, layer upon layer, over all the years of our life. Recent occurrences overlay more distant ones, obscuring, changing and adapting the sum of all our memories. Not only the conscious sensory experiences shape our “personality”. But to an even greater extent the “unconscious” emotional responses to these sensory experiences, ingrained in our memory, determine who we are. Our muscles, our skin, our feet and hands remember every sensation. Memory is what we are. When Swiss medical doctor Johannes Hofer concocted the word “nostalgia” from the Greek words nóstos (“returning to” or “homecoming”) and álgos (“pain”) in 1688, he was looking for a medical term for the German Heimweh. Nostalgia gradually entered our language, but until the 1960’s it was only used for the medical condition of excessive yearning for the past. 

What is it that we yearn for? Memories. Good memories. Yearning for past memories is an attempt to revert to that emotional state of being which gave us the sense of belonging, of being home. The German Heimweh encompasses the physical, psychological and emotional aspects of “home”. The “weh” in Heimweh ranges from emotional anguish to physical pain.

Yearning for the comforting feeling of belonging, of connectedness with one’s social and physical environment, is a universal human trait. We constantly strive (mostly unconsciously) to recreate the feel-good moments, from our earliest childhood onwards, that gave us that feeling of belonging. The friends we choose, our daily activities, the homes we create – all are influenced by our past memories of what made us feel safe and happy. Memories can have a very positive influence on the course of our life. The “pain” in Heimweh is only felt with alienation from either the physical or social (and on a subconscious level the emotional) environment that we called home. The present sensory experiences and our emotional response to them cannot enact the feel-good emotional state of being that our memory tells us we had in times past. This unhappiness with present conditions is the root of Heimweh.

I have deliberately used the psychologically more descriptive word Heimweh instead of nostalgia. Nostalgia was floating around in mainly academic circles and kept the complex meaning of Heimweh until the 1960’s when it was discovered by the advertising industry and monetised. And alas, like so many words inflated by the demands for ever greater sales, nostalgia degenerated into a cute marketing device to sell objects and ideas to people who until then had no need of them. The vague feeling of alienation so common in industrialised societies had to be ameliorated. What better tool than nostalgia, that yearning for the good things of the past? What the advertising industry created was vicarious nostalgia. For Heimweh you need the memories of actual people, places and experiences for the authentic emotions. For nostalgia to be marketable, memories of other people (usually consumers of bygone decades) are presented as your own memories. This creates the powerful emotions of wanting to return to the world of typewriters and bellbottom jeans, although you have never before used or perhaps even seen a typewriter. By the relentless bombarding of your senses, the advertising industry quite easily creates memories that are not your own authentic memories, but memories that become part of you through repetition – vicarious memories, vicarious nostalgia. The effort to ease the nostalgic pain is good for the economy. Consuming fashion, music, destinations and lifestyles that gives you the feeling of returning home, is an important cog in the economic machinery. The powerful human emotion of nostalgia has been harnessed by superficial consumerism. To monetise human emotions is easy: sex sells, nostalgia sells.

Cynical observations aside, human emotions remain the most powerful tools to change society, to change human civilisation and thus change the course of the planet. To a naturalist, emotions are neuronal-hormonal information networks from our evolutionary past that govern our actions and behaviour. They are deep-rooted, powerful and mostly unconscious. Heimweh has roots that stretch deeper than our conscious recollections. Earliest childhood memories, the happy moments, are the most powerful initiators of Heimweh. But the unconscious memories of your first two years of life, the sensory collection of data that could not be defined because language is necessary to create conscious memories – are those memories not even more powerful? The yearning to belong, to be at home, is an ice berg with a small tip conscious to us. To make a bold statement: our unconscious emotions do not only come into being when we are born. They originate long before we start off as a human embryo. Could there be something like genetic memory, mitochondrial memory that stretches back in time for hundreds of millions of years?

Before we brush this aside as esoteric hogwash, let’s have a deeper look at Heimweh. Probably every human gets emotional about water. We yearn for water, not only because it is essential for our physical survival, but also because it gives us a feeling of calmness, of being at home. We build our homes next to water, we bring water features into our gardens and cities. Humans enjoy being close to water. Could it be that this Heimweh for water originates way down in our DNA when it was still floating around in various ancestral organisms in the primeval oceans? As the information contained in DNA gets passed on from generation to generation, should the memory of each generation not be preserved as well?

Why do humans love being in so-called Nature? We enjoy being surrounded by the natural world of plants, animals and geological formations. City dwellers yearn for plants, trees, gardens. Even fellow-animals in the guise of pets ease the Heimweh of alienated city dwellers. Walks in natural surroundings, visits to nature reserves and game parks, having tea in our garden – all are testimony to the deep-rooted Heimweh we have for the natural world. The sighs and goosepimples that sunsets elicit is a hint of Heimweh on an even grander scale. Humans who spend all their lives in cities or sprawling slums with no memories of natural vegetation and wild animals – if these humans yearn for Eden, could it be that this Heimweh is rooted in our genes before we developed language and conscious memories? Alienation from all things that make us animals feel at home, causes Heimweh. We don’t belong in a world without plants, without other animals. We don’t belong in a world of plastics and concrete, a world manufactured by technology. We don’t belong in a virtual world of images of Nature, images of fellow-animals, images of other humans. Most of us have that indistinct yearning for a Garden of Eden, for a paradise that our genes remember.

Heimweh is a powerful emotion that directs us backward to good memories. But could it also push us forward to a real “new” home, a “new” Garden of Eden? Can we harness this powerful force of Heimweh to lead us forward to a home we share with all other creatures on this planet? A home replete with all things natural to our ancestral genes, including death, pain and suffering? Or are we stuck with nostalgia and the virtual world of only the needs and wants of humans? A world where death is only a technical problem for the medical sciences, a home only for humans and no space for other “useless” life?

We should heed our Heimweh.

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Photos by Maria Stallmann