‘Cognitive Immobility’ – When You’re Mentally Trapped in a Place From Your Past

Summary: Cognitive immobility is a form of mental entrapment that leads to conscious or unconscious efforts to recreate past instances in familiar locations.

Source: The Conversation

If you have moved from one country to another, you may have left something behind – be it a relationship, a home, a feeling of safety or a sense of belonging. Because of this, you will continually reconstruct mental simulations of scenes, smells, sounds and sights from those places – sometimes causing stressful feelings and anxiety.

This describes what I have dubbed “cognitive immobility”, outlined in my new research article, published in Culture & Psychology.

The study used autoethnography, a research method in which the author is also the topic of investigation. The research was partly based on my feelings, thoughts and experiences while living in the UK and Germany, far from my ancestral home in Igbo land, Africa.

Cognitive immobility is a stressful mental entrapment that leads to a conscious or unconscious effort to recreate past incidents in one or more locations that one lived in or visited in the past. By doing so, we are hoping to retrieve what is missing or left behind.

When people cannot remain in locations because of conditions beyond their control, such as a war or family or work commitments, their bodies may physically move to a new world, while their minds are left behind – trapped in the previous location.

Thus, these people might be described as being “cognitively immobilised”. During this time, such individuals may seek consolation through the reconstruction of events or physical movement to the locations that they migrated or departed from.

This may be related to homesickness, but it is actually different. Homesickness is a feeling of longing for a previous home, whereas cognitive immobility is a cognitive mechanic that works on our attention and memory to mentally trap us in a place – whether it is a previous home or just a place we’ve visited.

Our conscious memory (made up of semantic and episodic memories) allows us to remember not just what happened in the past, but also basic knowledge of things around us. Specifically, episodic memory helps us remember or reconstruct events we experienced or events that could have happened in the past but didn’t.

Indeed, research shows that recalling memory is a process of imagination – we often recreate past events in a way that isn’t necessarily accurate, but rather affected by our current beliefs and emotional state. This can make our past look even better than it was.

The entrapped mind

I believe the experience may be very common for people who migrate. In an unrelated study on Syrian students who fled to Turkey, one of them stated: “I am still in Syria. My soul is there. I always have memories of my dead cousins. This affects my getting used to here.

Those days will never come back.” Another Syrian student said: “I left my homeland, my nation, my relatives, everything in Syria. I was physically here, but spiritually there.” Both students are clearly suffering from cognitive immobility.

Due to cognitive immobility, some people who have moved from their homes to new locations perpetually long to visit their old homes. But cognitive immobility still applies – when they do visit their old home, they immediately long to return to their new homeland.

So, according to my research, a person who has migrated may have a “homeless mind” while experiencing a situation where no home is truly a home; even the previous home – the ancestral home – has lost its distinguishing features and allure in the real world.

It is easy to see why. Ultimately, there is no place without self and no self without place. Therefore, who we are is greatly influenced by the places we live or go and where we desire to be in the present and future.

The implications are serious. For example, it could lead to problems integrating into a new place and making new friends — potentially making us even more trapped in the past as we don’t have an engaging present to distract us. Constantly being stuck in the past could also get in the way of thinking ahead. This can have knock on effects for our wellbeing – we need to focus on the past and present as well as the future to feel good.

What could be done

According to my research, there are three stages of cognitive immobility. The first entails becoming aware of the stress and anxiety caused by leaving the location where the mind is entrapped. During this stage, most migrants experience a lot of uncertainty, which hinders their efforts in many aspects of their lives, including resettling, acquiring new skills such as language and making new acquaintances.

The second stage involves deliberate efforts to reclaim the lost or abandoned object, creating more tension than the first stage. Here, the person might engage in activities such as travelling to their ancestral land, reconstructing their memories and reading about the lost location. Although physical visits to sites could alleviate the stress, this could be a temporary solution.

This shows a woman looking out of a window
Sometimes the body moves, but not the mind. Image is in the public domain

The last phase consists of deliberate efforts to retain values and seek goals that will alleviate the loss. This approach might consist of using artefacts to symbolise the lost home, such as art or images.

It has also been argued that migrants could “make new homes”, but also represent their memories and aspirations – for example by making friends with people who come from the same place, or have the same religion. This is in fact one way to ultimately reduce the anxiety.

For now, it is evident that cognitive immobility has no perfect cure. But psychology offers some solutions which may prove to be useful, although they are yet to be investigated in the context of cognitive immobility.

For example, there are psychological interventions that can help us balance our mental focus on the past, present and future. To avoid being stuck in the past and become more present focused, we can write down something we are grateful for every day. And to become more future focused, we could imagine our “best possible self” five years from now – it worked for many people during the COVID lockdowns.

About this psychology research news

Author: Olumba E. Ezenwa
Source: The Conversation
Contact: Olumba E. Ezenwa – The Conversation
Image: The image is in the public domain

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  1. I wish to come back and live in the place where I was born and grew, a place in Eastern Europe. I note that the article says “when they do visit their old home, they immediately long to return to their new homeland” – so it seems that this condition of “cognitive immobility” does not apply to me, since every time I visit the place of my birth, I do not experience any dissonance, and I do not particularly wish to come back to the U.S. Of course I always do come back, mostly because of my family. If I were independent, I would immediately retire and move to my childhood home in Eastern Europe. I fully realize that if actually did it, after a few years there, I *might* feel different about it. Or not. I wish I could try it now and know for sure.

  2. The main characteristic of this [anti-conceptual] mentality is a special kind of passivity: not passivity as such and not across-the-board, but passivity beyond a certain limit—i.e., passivity in regard to the process of conceptualization and, therefore, in regard to fundamental principles. It is a mentality which decided, at a certain point of development, that it knows enough and does not care to look further. What does it accept as “enough”? The immediately given, directly perceivable concretes of its background. . . .

    To grasp and deal with such concretes, a human being needs a certain degree of conceptual development, a process which the brain of an animal cannot perform. But after the initial feat of learning to speak, a child can counterfeit this process, by memorization and imitation. The anti-conceptual mentality stops on this level of development—on the first levels of abstractions, which identify perceptual material consisting predominantly of physical objects—and does not choose to take the next, crucial, fully volitional step: the higher levels of abstraction from abstractions, which cannot be learned by imitation. (See my book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology) . . .

    The anti-conceptual mentality takes most things as irreducible primaries and regards them as “self-evident.” It treats concepts as if they were (memorized) percepts; it treats abstractions as if they were perceptual concretes. To such a mentality, everything is the given: the passage of time, the four seasons, the institution of marriage, the weather, the breeding of children, a flood, a fire, an earthquake, a revolution, a book are phenomena of the same order. The distinction between the metaphysical and the man-made is not merely unknown to this mentality, it is incommunicable.

    -Ayn Rand , Philosophy: Who Needs It

    “The Missing Link,”

  3. Tradition has been known for millenia. It was not discovered by neuroscience.

  4. This blather is a research report? There’s not a piece of data in it, just speculation and a personal anecdote or two. Maybe the author has actually done some research, but this article fails to show anything about it. This is the sort of stuff that gives “social science” a bad name.

  5. I’m not an immigrant, never have I left Nigeria (though I hope to), however what I do always is think about the future, all the time almost compulsively!, not sure they’re the same of course but I see similarities. Not being able to just be in the present by being always in the future.

  6. I was drawn to this article because I’m a therapist. I have clients who are emotionally compromised and I was reading to see if I could connect the possibility that, maybe they are “cognitively immobile”. It seems that this “thought” can be applied to other forms of trauma not just “missing home”.

    1. Yes. I agree. Potentially any significant loss, and longing for life to be like it was before. To me it sounds a lot like a grief process for a loss… that they cannot fully process or accept, as theoretically may be possible to reclaim, eg relationship breakdown like separation or divorce. A loss that has a component that is mysterious, or unexplained… or perceived in some way as not (or possibly not), being permanent. Probably also because there is a large element of the unknown. Think of people who have a missing person… the missing person may or may not be dead, it could be possible they return…

      There are many areas the idea of being cognitively immobile (as described) is associated with an loss.

      Think losses after a major health problem like stroke or accident, especially if the loss is medically unexplained or uncertain.

      For me personally this was a major emotional difficulty I faced with a cancer diagnosis, and the huge unknowns associated. You can mourn a loss that is likely or imminent even before it is gone (eg terminal diagnosis). Not knowing the course the disease will take, not having any measure of how well the treatment is working, having difficulty planning anything other than short-term is cognitively immobilising.

      This someone in prison who is innocent with a life (even long) sentence. It may be very difficult or impossible to accept life as it it, even though it traps them cognitively and prevents them making the best of life how it is.

      This may also go a long way to explaining the huge relief, that can come after a diagnosis of a condition like Multiple Schlerosis or neurodegenertive disease… even though it may seem illogical. It often takes 10 years or more to get a diagnosis often symptoms are unexplained or thought to be psychological. A diagnosis does not change the progress of the disease, still many people cite a feeling of relief and validation. I think having an explanation for the loss helps acceptance and some closure.

      Hope is something that is both positive and negative. Hope can motivate keep spirits higher or keep you trapped and immobile… affect you living and planning in the present.
      Hope and longing are closely related. Hope intensifies longing.

      When there is a lot of uncertainty or possible impermanance you cannot truly know what what sort of future is realistic. It is really hard to give up hope, and many encourage to not to hive up hope. Having hope makes it more difficult to accept a loss. Nostalgia is a romanticised loss, and increases longing and hope that may not be entirely based on reality.

      Many people think that giving up hope is a bad thing… but sometimes it is healthy. Hope is future based, similar to, but opposing fear and anxiety. I think for healthy day to day living you need to primarily be focussed on the present and limit time spent focussing on past or future.

  7. Can one experience cognitive immobility with respect to a habit that they have left behind, rather than a place?

    1. I think so. If it was a habit that had an element of enjoyment… there can be a sense of nostalgia and loss. I think addiction is very much like this.

  8. um….this is called immigration trauma and I am not sure if I agree with the pathologizing of experience by applying yet another label to the immigration experience.

    1. Agreed. New names for age-old things. And “autoethnography”? Give me a break. The more words a researcher needs to use – no less invent! – to make it sound like they are doing research, the less research they are doing and the more they are covering up for it with gobblydegook. How about I stare at my feet, contemplate my depression, and call it autopodopsychology? Hey, they might get me published. No matter how nice the author might be, the author should be given rudimentary training for failing to see that their “unique” problem is in a broad category. indeed, people get stuck on all manner of things. The *underlying* causes and solutions should be examined, rather than *undermining* science by trying to give every different experience a new categorization and class of investigation.

    2. I do think there is not a lot of new ground… to me this article deals with loss, grief, nostalgia and hope resulting in stagnation, and cognitively immobility, limiting you accepting your present and moving forward. It is an example of incomplete grieving people may not have considered, but are likely to have seen repeatedly.

      In cases where migration is forced by difficult or traumatic circumstances the picture intensifies and is more complicated. This cognitive immobility can occur without trauma… loss is enough. Not all migration is forced.

  9. Very interesting read love you research I deal with this daily with my son who is ASD autoimmune disease and also schizophrenic the information you give is Right On Target

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