Cognitive Immobility

Cognitive Immobility – Getting Trapped in the Past

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By Joanne Toller

Change is hard. We sometimes long for the feelings of memories, safety, or belonging experienced in another place or time in our lives. This connection to the past can cause cognitive immobility, a stressful mental entrapment that leads to conscious or unconscious efforts to recreate situations from the past.

When we move from one place to another, physically, mentally, or emotionally, we may feel like we’ve left something behind. This could be a home, a job, a relationship, or a community. In these situations, we may seek to reclaim the things we feel we have lost. This reclaiming means we continue to recreate mental simulations of that place’s scenes, smells, sounds, and sights, which can cause stress and anxiety.

Essentially speaking, cognitive immobility is the inability to adjust to new surroundings. The inability to remain in a location because of things beyond one’s control leads to the body physically moving but the mind remaining trapped in the previous location. Cognitive immobility is a relatively new concept coined by Ezenwa E Olumba in his article “The Homeless Mind in a Mobile World.”

The Malleability of Memory

Studies have shown that our memory is often flawed. Our conscious memory comprises semantic and episodic memories. Episodic memory helps us explicitly recall and reconstruct past events we experienced (or think we have experienced). Semantic memory refers to general knowledge we have accumulated throughout our lives.

Our memory uses more imagination than we expect it would. According to research, we reconstruct memories differently based on our current beliefs and emotional states. We can make the past look worse or better than it was. It’s long been known that our memories are far from perfect. We often forget things or remember them differently than how they happened.

The fact that our memories are malleable gives us some hope for overcoming cognitive immobility. If we learn to change our memories, we can also learn to let go of harmful beliefs and biases.

An Example of Cognitive Immobility

Cognitive immobility may sometimes be confused with homesickness. Homesickness is a longing for an old home. In contrast, cognitive immobility is a mental mechanism entrapping our mind, attention, and memory in a specific place, regardless of where we are now.

With cognitive immobility, it is not necessarily the physical place that matters; it is the memory of the place. For example, this phenomenon is commonly seen in people who have migrated from one country to another. Their body is physically in country B, but they’re mentally still in country A. They long to be home in country A while they are in country B, but even if they were able to go home, the cognitive immobility wouldn’t necessarily dissipate; Their home in country A doesn’t feel like the home they remember, so they long to be back in country B.

Olumba labels this phenomenon “the homeless mind,” where no home feels like home; the “allure and distinguishing features” of home have dissipated in reality. All that is left is a longing and memory of home that doesn’t exist.

Consequences of Cognitive Immobility

Being mentally trapped in the past can make it extremely hard to integrate into a new place or situation. If you are mentally only living in the past, it can make it harder to meet new friends, create a new community for yourself and find a new sense of belonging. When you can't connect and engage with the present, you may further entrench yourself in memories of the past, which could, in turn, blind you from future possibilities. This can have devastating effects on our well-being and impede our ability to make healthy choices based on our past, present, and future.

Treating Cognitive Immobility

Many psychological interventions such as DBT, CBT, ISTDP, EMDR, and Direct Neurofeedback work to balance our focus on the past and future. Treatment for cognitive immobility generally focuses on learning new skills and strategies for thinking flexibly and adaptively.

A registered physiotherapist can help you learn these new strategies, challenge your negative thinking, and provide support and encouragement during times of stress. In severe cases, medication may also be prescribed to help relieve symptoms.

With treatment, most people with cognitive immobility can improve their ability to cope with their new environment or situation, leading to more successful and fulfilling lives.

Read More at Nominawellness

About Ezenwa Olumba


I’m a doctoral researcher who researches and writes about issues at the intersection of memory, migration, and politics. I’m particularly interested in how violence, culture, atrocities on people and other life experiences influence people’s emotions, collective actions, (im)mobility aspirations, and identities. My outstanding research on ‘Cognitive Immobility’ has been well received, and the blog post emanating from it has been read by over 500k people worldwide and translated into other languages. I have published a research article on conflicts and blog posts on drones, eco-violence, and relief funding.

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