What is inhibition? Inhibition, or inhibition control, could be defined as the ability to inhibit or control impulsive (or automatic) responses and produce thought-out responses by using attention and reasoning. Inhibition refers to the ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli when carrying out a task.
Cognitive ability making up part of our executive functions
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Inhibition is one of our executive functions, it contributes to anticipation, planning, and establishing goals by controlling behavior, resisting an automatic action and changing it for a reasoned response appropriate for the situation.
Even though we're not always conscious of it, we are continuously exercising inhibition control. For example, when we're in class, our inhibition keeps us from being distracted by the fly near the window or getting up when we're tired of sitting down. When we get angry, inhibition control helps us control ourselves and keeps us from yelling and throwing anything we can get our hands on. Or, imagine you're at a funeral for your friend's dad and your editor calls to tell you that they're going to publish your book. Imagine that you start to celebrate and dance around excitedly... Luckily, our inhibition would keep us from doing that and help us maintain somber for the serious situation.
Dr. Russell Barkley proposed an auto-regulating behavior model where inhibition control is the base of ensuring the rest of our executive functions work properly. Inhibition control is necessary for mental flexibility, controlling impulsivity or interferences, working memory, affective and emotional regulation, etc. Deficient inhibition is one of the main problems in disorders like ADHD.
An inhibition deficit can manifest itself in three different levels:
- Motor level: Lack of motor control, which results in hyperactivity. For example, when a child in class can't stay seated because he is bored and is tired of sitting.
- Attention level: is presented by distractibility and difficulties paying attention. For example, when we're reading a book and we get distracted because we hear the neighbor's doorbell or a bird flying past the window.
- Behavioral level: is manifested through impulsive actions that we can't inhibit. For example, starting to yell at our mom or dad at the movies because they wouldn't share their popcorn.
Pathologies related to deficient inhibition control
There are many pathologies that can cause problems with inhibition control, like ADHD, frontal syndromes (caused by frontal lobe brain injuries due to a stroke, head injuries and/or tumors), neurodegenerative disorders with loss of neurons in frontal lobes, like fronto-temporal or Pick dementia, or diseases without any apparent injury or disease, but with impaired blood flow in the frontal lobe like we see with schizophrenia and/or alcoholism and causes cognitive alterations and behaviors similar to frontal syndromes.