Cognitive Immobility

Stuck in the Past: The Awareness

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At feasts, remember that you are entertaining two guests, body and soul. What you give to the body, you presently lose; what you give to the soul, you keep for ever’.

Cognitive immobility is classified into three levels. This was mentioned in a recent academic paper on cognitive immobility titled ‘The homeless mind in a mobile world: An autoethnographic approach to cognitive immobility in international migration’. Culture & Psychology, a prominent academic publication, published the research report. The three stages are (a) awareness and separation, (b) retrieval, and (c) stabilisation. 
This piece that you are reading aims to link various parts of life experiences to cognitive immobility and better explain the first stage of cognitive immobility, which is the stage of awareness and separation.
The idea that someone could be stuck in the past was something that I was used to. It was not seen as something many people experienced until I published my research paper and the article on The Conversation UK. Since then, I have been inundated with experiences, narratives, and ideas from wonderful people worldwide. 
It was a wonderful experience to know that many people could now be aware of this phenomenon and have a word for it. The next step would be to figure out how to alleviate it, which is underway. 

The many angles of Cognitive Immobility

As I outlined in the research paper, cognitive immobility was viewed from transnational perspectives, which enumerated the experiences of someone who has moved from one place to another. It is important to note that cognitive immobility is related to many aspects of life experiences. 
The feedback from many wonderful people has confirmed that this phenomenon is relatable to the experiences of those who experience broken relationships, dementia, abandonment by friends/family, and bereavement. It could be linked to other things that have happened in a person’s life, such as cultural traditions, emotional abuse, trauma, losing a home, and integrating into a new culture.
It has been an insightful experience pouring through the hundreds of emails and messages from the wonderful people worldwide who have contacted me since the publication of the insightful and impactful article on The Conversation, which has broken records in readership from many angles. 
When viewed through the lens of various life experiences, cognitive immobility seems to encompass many other dimensions of life. Thus, cognitive immobility is a stressful sense of mental entrapment in one or multiple places. It results in conscious or unconscious efforts to recreate memories of people, places, events, cultures, and things that someone encountered in places they lived or visited in the past. 
Therefore, cognitive immobility is relatable to many experiences that boil down to being stuck in the past and efforts made to 'unstuck'  –  which could be re-constructive memories and physical mobility, amongst others.

Stage of Awareness

Among the stages of immobility outlined in the research pieces was the stage of awareness and separation. This is the stage of uncertainty and confusion when someone discovers that they cannot stop thinking or longing for life experiences or places they have moved away from. 
This could emanate from pleasant or unpleasant memories of people, places, things, cultures, and events, which at times could be favourable or unfavourable. However, when the unconscious remembering sets in, the whole mental journey becomes a stressful feeling. 
People at this stage tend to avoid disruptions that could interfere with their activities, such as the act of reconstructing memories and re-experiencing past episodes. This is when someone who steps away from a life experience demands to be left alone. For instance, someone who left a relationship or marriage; at this stage, they will be reconstructing past episodes, justifying their actions or vilifying them.

Remedies for now

Someone in this situation might find it helpful to use  purposeful distraction techniques or to deliberately take their mind off of life.I advocate having four critical things in your life that you will work hard to build and maintain: a craft, a community, time for contemplation, and good health.
A craft is anything that someone does or will do to make a living. It is a necessary item that will assist in distracting oneself from life. Having a craft is important for keeping the body and mind engaged; as such, it must be developed and maintained. We recognise that retirees receive pensions or dividends; they might also give their time to keep the body and mind engaged.
Another important factor that can contribute to people's well-being is community, which can provide psychosocial support and other benefits. The community includes family, friends, neighbours, and others we may encounter in various circumstances. This factor is crucial in reducing the pain associated with cognitive immobility. You may intentionally divert yourself from life by creating and maintaining a community; you could volunteer or join a group or church. It can sometimes be a cause of cognitive immobility, but it is also one way to treat it.
Your body is essential because it houses everything about you. As a result, you must work hard to keep it healthy, active, and free of harmful substances. Making it a priority to walk, jog, eat healthily, keep things clean, and keep harmful germs out of your environment is a great way to get 'unstuck' from your past.
Another important factor is contemplation. Just as we feed our bodies with food to keep them going, we should feed our minds with meditation to keep them going. Journaling, medication, and reflexive practises may help us identify what we do well and poorly and how to treat our problems in unexpected ways. Contemplation, even if only temporarily, can assist in distracting us from being trapped in the past (unstucking). Still, journaling, doing housework, being creative, and reading are all important first steps.

When you have taken care of these four things (craft, community, contemplation, and health), you will be on your way to unsticking yourself from life's events, lowering the tension associated with cognitive immobility.

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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