Suzana Herculano-Houzel

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I’ve been in the USA for two weeks, without children or husband. The husband has been busy with the work at home, the children have been busy on vacation with their father – and while I’m not busy discovering under a microscope how many neurons monkeys’ brains are made of, I’m dying of homesickness.

I don’t know of any studies on this specific sensation, but two recently published papers give the hint. One shows that the same parts of the brain that we use to remember the past are used when we project into the future. The other, in turn, shows that patients who suffer from the kind of amnesia that prevents them from remembering the past are equally unable to imagine themselves in the future. Put the pieces together with the fact that our brains are capable of evoking emotional states similar to those caused by real situations on their own and I wonder if this memory of the future based on the past isn’t largely responsible for my advanced state of nostalgia.

Since the first step in approaching a problem scientifically is to define it, I send an e-mail to my husband, a writer and translator well versed in the semantic arts, asking for the Houaiss definition of “saudade”. The reply arrives in a few hours, as long as ever (one of the advantages of being married to a writer), with the entry (about melancholy, incompleteness, a sense of deprivation and desirable memories), detailed comments (unpublishable, but essentially about the entry’s unnecessary verbosity), and a more objective definition offered by my husband: “expectation for something that has already been and that one wishes would be again”. Perfect. It’s no wonder that imagining the warmth of his embrace and my children’s smiles makes my heart squeeze and my brain yearn to get home. My homesickness must be the result of my brain’s ability to miss the people I love, remember the sensation of their presence, and project itself into their company again.

My flight leaves in two hours and my fear of airplanes reminds me that this must be the greatest pain of losing a loved one: the certainty that memories of a near future with them won’t come true. Fortunately, in my case, my nostalgia is a reasonably secure memory of the future. As far as I know, everyone is alive and well, the airline statistics are in my favor, and in about 15 hours I should be back. Homesickness hurts, but it takes me home.

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on February, 2007.

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