Cognitive Immobility – Getting Trapped in the Past
Updated: Jul 25
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.
Three Stages of Cognitive immobility
Olumba notes three stages of cognitive immobility in his research. During the first phase, one becomes aware of the stress and anxiety caused by leaving the place where the mind is entrapped. In this phase, a lot of uncertainty can get in the way of efforts to resettle and integrate into their new location (such as learning a new language or meeting new people).
In the second stage, the person consciously attempts to reclaim the lost or abandoned object. Here, they might travel to their ancestral land, reconstruct their memories, and read about the place they have lost. This stage often creates more tension than the first.
The last stage involves attempting to retain values and seek goals that can alleviate the loss. This may be finding/making art, photographs, or other artifacts that symbolize the lost place. Some research shows that migrants can reconcile their memories and new home by establishing connections with people from their home country or who have the same religion. This has been shown to reduce the anxiety caused by cognitive immobility.
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 environmonet or situation, leading to more successful and fulfilling lives.