Summary: Cognitive immobility is a form of mental trapping that leads to conscious or unconscious efforts to recreate past instances in familiar places.
Source: The conversation
If you have 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 will continually re-enact mental simulations of the sights, smells, sounds, and sights of these places, sometimes causing stressful feelings and anxiety.
This describes what I’ve called “cognitive immobility,” described in my new research paper, published in Culture & Psychology.
The study used autoethnography, a research method in which the author is also the subject of investigation. The research was partly based on my feelings, thoughts and experiences while living in the UK and Germany, far from my ancestral home in Igbo land, Africa.
Cognitive immobility is a stressful mental trap that leads to a conscious or unconscious effort to recreate past incidents in one or more places one has lived or visited in the past. In doing so, we hope to recover what is missing or what remains.
When people cannot stay in places due to conditions beyond their control, such as war or family or work commitments, their bodies can physically move to a new world, while their minds are left behind – trapped in the previous location.
Thus, these people could be qualified as “cognitively immobilized”. During this time, these people may seek comfort by re-enacting events or physically moving to places from which they migrated or left.
It may be related to homesickness, but it’s actually different. Homesickness is a feeling of nostalgia for a previous home, while cognitive immobility is a cognitive mechanism that acts on our attention and memory to mentally trap us in a place, whether it’s a previous house or simply from a place we visited.
Our conscious memory (made up of semantic and episodic memories) allows us to remember not only what happened in the past, but also a basic knowledge of things around us. Specifically, episodic memory helps us remember or reconstruct events that we have experienced or events that could have happened in the past but did not.
Indeed, research shows that memory recall is an imaginative process – we often recreate past events in a way that is not necessarily accurate, but rather affected by our current beliefs and emotional state. It can make our past even better than it was.
The trapped mind
I believe the experience can be very common for people who migrate. In an independent study of Syrian students who fled to Turkey, one said: “I am still in Syria. My soul is there. I still have memories of my deceased cousins. It affects my habit here.
Those days will never come again. Another Syrian student said, “I left my homeland, my nation, my relatives, everything in Syria. I was physically here, but spiritually there. Both students clearly suffer from cognitive immobility.
Due to cognitive immobility, some people who have moved from their homes to new places perpetually yearn to visit their old homes. But the cognitive immobility still applies – when they visit their old home, they immediately yearn to return to their new homeland.
Thus, according to my research, a person who has migrated can have a “homeless spirit” while living in a situation where no housing is really a residence; even the previous house – the ancestral home – has lost its distinctive features and allure in the real world.
It’s easy to see why. Ultimately, there is no place without a self and no self without a place. Therefore, who we are is greatly influenced by where we live or go and where we want to be in the present and the future.
The implications are serious. For example, it could lead to problems fitting in in a new place and making new friends, which could make us even more trapped in the past because we don’t have an engaging present to distract us. Being constantly stuck in the past could also prevent you from thinking about the future. This can impact our well-being – we need to focus on the past and present as well as the future to feel good.
What could we do
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. During this stage, most migrants experience a lot of uncertainty, which hinders their efforts in many aspects of their lives, including resettlement, learning new skills such as language, and creating new knowledge.
The second stage involves deliberate efforts to retrieve the lost or abandoned object, creating more tension than the first stage. Here, the person can engage in activities such as traveling to their ancestral land, reconstructing their memories, and reading about the lost place. Although physical visits to sites can alleviate stress, it could be a temporary solution.
The last phase consists of deliberate efforts to retain values and seek goals that will mitigate the loss. This approach can be to use artifacts to symbolize the lost home, such as artwork or pictures.
It has also been argued that migrants can “make new homes”, but also represent their memories and aspirations – for example by befriending people who come from the same place or who have the same religion. It’s actually a way to ultimately reduce anxiety.
For now, it’s obvious that cognitive immobility doesn’t have a perfect cure. But psychology offers solutions that may 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 to be grateful for every day. And to focus more on the future, we could imagine our “best possible self” five years from now – this has worked for many people during the COVID-related lockdowns.
About this psychology research news
Author: Olumba E. Ezenwa
Source: The conversation
Contact: Olumba E. Ezenwa – The Conversation
Image: Image is in public domain