By Ksenia Northmore-Ball (University of Nottingham; Email: Ksenia.Northmore-Ball@nottingham.ac.uk)
Usually, if a loved one is unfortunate enough to suffer from Alzheimer’s, we think of bringing family photos and playing old tunes and films to jog their memory. But it would seem that in eastern Germany a retirement home has successfully taken more drastic measures to help restore memory and functionality of their residents: re-creating life under the communist GDR! The retirement home re-decorated the interiors using vintage wall paper from the 1970’s and even re-created a food store from the GDR with products with old labels. Supposedly the residents who had been bed-ridden before have recovered enough functionality to get up again and go the toilet and feed themselves.
This story suggests that experiences of authoritarian regimes may be much more ingrained in our consciousness then currently assumed. Normally we tend to speak of feelings and attachments to past authoritarian regimes in terms of political memory or nostalgia and in a cultural sense. And mainly historians and culture experts studying areas of the world with new democracies show an interest in political memory. But could we one day find solid biological evidence for nostalgia and effects of growing up under certain political conditions? Masses of scientific research shows the important influence of childhood experiences on brain development but of course this research focuses more on micro-level influences such as the parental influence, home environment, education, nutrition and so forth.
Some political science research does look at the role of cognitive development but again it has a very micro-level focus mainly looking at parental influence and the formation of very specific individual preferences, such as racism, that can be highly varied within a given society.
But what about imprints of living under authoritarian regimes on entire generations that grew up under them? If nostalgia for old regimes is indeed hard-wired into human brains, this has strong political implications. As long as the old generation of citizens who have grown up before a democratic transition is around, using political appeals which trigger old memories will be a powerful tool for political elites in new democracies.