“Cognitive immobility” – When you are mentally trapped in a place from your past

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Summary: Cognitive immobility is a form of mental trapping that results in conscious or unconscious efforts to recreate past instances in familiar places.

Source: The conversation

When you’ve moved from one country to another, you may have left something behind – be it a relationship, a home, a sense of security or a sense of belonging. Because of this, you are constantly reconstructing mental simulations of scenes, smells, sounds, and sights from those places—sometimes causing stressful feelings and anxiety.

This describes what I have termed “cognitive immobility” and described in my new research article published in Culture & Psychology.

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

Cognitive immobility is a stressful mental trap that results in a conscious or unconscious effort to re-enact past incidents in one or more places one has lived or visited in the past. In this way we hope to retrieve what is missing or left behind.

When people are unable to stay in places due to conditions beyond their control, such as In times of war, or family or work commitments, their bodies may physically move to a new world, while their spirits are left – trapped in the previous place.

Therefore, these people could be described as “cognitively immobilized”. During this time such individuals may seek solace through the reconstruction of events or physical movement to the places from which they emigrated or traveled.

That may be related to homesickness, but it’s actually different. Homesickness is a feeling of longing for a previous home, while cognitive immobility is a cognitive mechanism that acts on our attention and memory to mentally attach us to a place – be it a previous home or just a place we’ve visited .

Our conscious memory (consisting of semantic and episodic memories) allows us to recall not only what happened in the past, but also basic knowledge about things around us. In particular, episodic memory helps us remember or reconstruct events that we experienced or events that could have happened in the past but didn’t happen.

In fact, research shows that memory retrieval is an imaginative process — we often recreate past events in ways that aren’t necessarily accurate, but are more influenced by our current beliefs and emotional state. This can make our past look even better than it was.

The Trapped Mind

I believe this experience can be very common for people who migrate. In an independent study of Syrian students who fled to Turkey, one of them said: “I’m still in Syria. my soul is there I always have memories of my dead cousins. This affects my habituation here.

Those times will never come again.” Another Syrian student said: “I left my homeland, my nation, my relatives, everything in Syria. I was physically here, but mentally there.” Both students clearly suffer from cognitive immobility.

Because of cognitive immobility, some people who have moved from their home to a new place constantly long to visit their old home. But the cognitive immobility still applies – when they visit their old home, they immediately long to return to their new home.

According to my research, a person who has migrated may have a “homeless spirit” while experiencing a situation where no home is truly a home hometown; even the former home – the parent company – has lost its unique selling points and appeal in the real world.

It’s easy to see why. Ultimately there is no place without a self and no self without a place. Who we are is therefore strongly influenced by the places we live or where we go, and where we want to be in the present and future.

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The impact is severe. For example, it could lead to problems integrating into a new place and making new friends – potentially trapping us even more in the past as we don’t have an appealing present to distract ourselves. Constantly getting stuck in the past could also get in the way of thinking ahead. This can have an impact on our well-being – we need to focus on the past and present as well as the future in order to feel good.

what could be done

According to my research, there are three stages of cognitive immobility. The first is to become aware of the stress and anxiety caused by leaving the place where the mind is trapped. At this stage, most migrants experience a great deal of insecurity that hinders their efforts in many aspects of their lives, including relocating, acquiring new skills such as language, and making new friends.

The second phase involves conscious efforts to reclaim the lost or abandoned object, which creates more tension than the first phase. Here the person could engage in activities such as traveling to their ancestral lands, reconstructing their memories and reading about the lost place. Although physical on-site visits 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. The image is in the public domain

The last phase consists of conscious efforts to preserve values ​​and to seek goals that mitigate the loss. This approach could be to use artifacts such as art or images to symbolize the lost homeland.

It has also been argued that migrants could ‘make a new home’ but could also display their memories and aspirations – for example by making friends with people who are from the same place or religion. This is indeed a way to ultimately reduce anxiety.

Right now it’s obvious that there is no perfect cure for cognitive immobility. But psychology offers some solutions that might prove useful, although they have yet to be explored 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 getting stuck in the past and focus more on the present, we can write down something we are grateful for each day. And to become more forward-thinking, we might envision our “best possible self” five years from now – it’s worked for many people during the COVID lockdown.

About this news from psychology research

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

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