Cognitive Immobility

Feeling stuck in the past? Experts are starting to explore how this mindset could affect your health.

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Have you ever felt as though your body and your mind were divided between two different places? 

Perhaps you keep turning the wrong way toward the grocery store, because in your old town the shop was on the left instead of the right. Or maybe on dates, you can’t stop thinking of your ex and comparing them to your new partners. 

If this limbo state sounds familiar, you may have experienced a type of cognitive immobility. Ezenwa Olumba, a doctoral researcher at the University of London, coined the term in 2022. He used it as a way to describe his experience immigrating, in which his mind felt trapped between the United Kingdom and his ancestral home in Nigeria.

While movies and songs like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” have touched on this ambivalence, Olumba is one of the first to bring it under scientific scrutiny and identify its impact on mental health. 

Read on to learn how cognitive immobility develops and how to deal with it in your own life. 

How it might play out in everyday life

Olumba describes cognitive immobility as a kind of “mental homelessness.” In short, you can’t fully feel at home in one place or another — your heart and mind always feel split in two.

But he also emphasizes that it relates to various life experiences, not just migration. 

For instance, it can appear in situations like:  

Whatever the cause, it typically follows three stages, according to Olumba. 

1. Awareness

In this first stage, you begin to realize your life has changed, possibly forever. This “We’re not in Kansas anymore” period can be quite stressful.

For example, imagine you’ve just graduated college and transitioned to an office job. During the first week, it starts to sink in that the corporate world is nothing like school: no grades, no syllabi, no open office hours. 

Absolutely, you might experience some homesickness, or yearning for your school days. But those states are mostly feelings. To contrast, you can think of cognitive immobility as the nagging mental voice that pulls you out of the present with constant reminders of “how things used to be.”

2. Retrieval

In this second stage, you might consciously take steps to try and relive the past. Maybe you comfort yourself by wearing memorabilia from your alma mater or scrolling through old photos from school.

A trip down memory lane can be helpful, but it doesn’t make a good permanent residence. If you spend too long ruminating on the past, you may have less mental energy to devote to your life in the present. 

In short, you may find yourself stuck in “school” mode, which can affect time management and overall productivity. Maybe you approach each task like a short-term, temporary assignment rather than an ongoing project, or neglect daily office tasks because they seem less important than bigger responsibilities. 

3. Stabilization

In this final stage, you may find some resolution as your identity gradually shifts out of limbo. 

You may not be exactly the same person as you were before. Even so, you hold on to the parts of you that matter, using the values, knowledge, and skills you built in the past to grow into your current circumstances.

At work, you may start following — even seeking out — advice from your coworkers and get a better sense of corporate rhythms. You realize the organization and research skills you used in school still help — you just have to apply them a little more flexibly.

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