Cognitive Immobility

Supporting refugees by addressing cognitive immobility

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Continually remembering past episodes, favourable or unpleasant, can lead to cognitive immobility. For some people, recreating pleasant memories is a defence mechanism or solace, and a way of coping with current circumstances, which may not be as nice as the previous ones. Doing this at the initial stage of change could seem helpful, but it may create a situation which causes that person to become entrapped in the past, thereby causing cognitive immobility to creep in. Recreating unhappy memories might induce negative feelings and could similarly entrap a person.
The first stage of immobility outlined in the research piece is that of awareness/separation. During this phase, people are initially bewildered by their experiences of being cognitively entrapped elsewhere. This is the stage of uncertainty and confusion when someone discovers that they cannot stop thinking about or longing for life experiences or places they have left behind. This feeling could emanate from pleasant or unpleasant memories of people, places, things, cultures and events. At this stage, a person who has left a relationship or marriage would become aware of the feelings of loss and other emotional stress that comes from this awareness. A typical response is to justify or reproach their actions and decisions, and to want to be left alone.
The second stage is retrieval. This is when someone seeks to recover and revisit the locations where they believe they may have lost something. During this stage, individuals attempt to resolve the issue of being entrapped in a location or life experience by making efforts to retrieve the lost item, person or home. If they cannot do so by physically travelling there or in person, they mentally re-experience the incidents by recognising and recreating memories, a process which can cause discomfort. When the unconscious remembering sets in, the mental journey becomes stressful. If assistance is not sought and provided, these conditions could lead to anger, despair, a sense of loss, depression and even psychosis in the affected individual.

Originally published by Bristol University Press via Transforming Society. Click to read more.

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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