Cognitive Inhibition: Development & Role

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Have you ever noticed how you can tune out certain things you see or hear? In this lesson, we'll discuss how cognitive inhibition develops in you, and its role in your life.

What is Cognitive Inhibition?

A classroom full of five year olds are given a strange test:

  1. Listen to this part of a sentence: ''At night, I brush my teeth with a...''
  2. Provide a word or phrase that finishes the sentence, such as ''toothbrush''.
  3. Try again, only this time finish the sentence with a word that doesn't fit, like ''wagon wheel''

Several of the children in the room say ''toothbrush'' both times. Even though they were told to use a word that doesn't fit, they can't suppress the picture of toothbrushes that keep coming to their mind.

Cognitive inhibition is the intentional or unintentional ability to suppress or slow down any area of conscious processing in your brain. This can include the things you remember, such as your last birthday or those meetings you had yesterday. You can choose to put them out of your mind and ignore them. It also includes your sensory information, such as things you see, hear, taste, smell, etc. You're so involved with your game that you don't even notice the smell of coffee brewing in the other room. Or it can be the suppression of your emotional reactions. For example, a friend says something that really hurts your feelings, but you choose to direct your thoughts to calmer areas and ignore that emotion.

The Role of Cognitive Inhibition

Although it may seem like it's not good to shut down part of your brain, cognitive inhibition plays an important role in your life. It allows you to filter out the impulses, information, and mental processes that interfere with your activities. Various mental deficiencies, including clinical depression (feeling so sad that it interferes with your life) and schizophrenia (losing touch with reality), can be directly related to a lack in your ability to filter out the thoughts, emotions, impulse, and sensory information that come to mind. Depressed persons tend to dwell on thoughts and memories that make them sad, while people struggling with schizophrenia lose their ability to separate things they imagine from things that are actually happening to them. In both cases, the brain's ability to suppress certain information has often been damaged.

It's very useful in daily life. Imagine that you are studying for a test. Cognitive inhibition helps you in many ways.

  1. You can restrict information that is relevant to you, allowing you to choose the pieces you want or need to work with. This allows you to choose the parts of the text that are points to remember, shutting off the surrounding information.
  2. You can shut off the information that is no longer valuable. This includes the page number of the last section you read or the color of the pen you chose to write with.
  3. You can restrain thoughts and ideas that are very strong in your mind but are not a correct direction for your thought. For example, the habit to check your e-mail can be very strong, no matter what else you're doing, yet when you want to study for a test, your e-mail can be very distracting.

Developing Your Cognitive Inhibition

Many people find that they are often at the mercy of their impulses and senses, whether they like it or not. They eat without thinking about it, get distracted by a television program, and are so used to paying attention to their cell phone that they can't seem to get anything done. So, how can you get better at inhibiting the impulses, sensory information, or memories that interfere with what you're trying to do? Training your mind is a lot like training other parts of your body. When you apply discipline and form good habits, the results can be effective.

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