The art of systemic balancing
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Presented at The Developing Group 7 July 20121


Areas of interest
What does inhibition do?*       
Inhibition, learning and the body
Some of our thoughts
Nine functions of inhibition – schematic diagrams
Problems of inhibition

* This section includes some quite technical descriptions. If that’s not how you learn best just scan or even skip the quotations in this section. Trust us, they will make more sense on a second or third reading.

Areas of interest

Many if not most words with a Latin root started out describing something in the physical environment or something the body does, and by metaphorical extension came to apply to abstract ideas. Inhibition is no exception. It comes from the Latin, inhibere, which itself originally meant ‘to hold in’. These days inhibition means a lot of different things to a lot of people. We won’t cover all the meanings, but we will be exploring the topic from a number of overlapping angles:

  1. In general, inhibition means to … hinder, hamper, hold back, restrain, constrain, prevent, prohibit,  impede,  discourage,  interfere with,  obstruct,  slow down,  retard, restrict,  curb,  check,  cramp,  fetter,  foil, frustrate,  stifle, suppress,  block,  thwart, stop,  halt … an action or process

  2. At the physical level it is the prevention or restraining of an organic process by neurological or physiological means.

  3. In psychology, inhibition refers to a conscious or unconscious constraint or restriction of a behaviour, impulse or desire.

Also we will explore the meta-process of inhibition of inhibition, the original Pavlovian term for what is now called disinhibition.

A word of warning

There is a tendency for some authors to use inhibition as though it were only a negating process. As we shall see however, when viewed systemically and neurologically, inhibiting is an active, balancing process that vastly increases the range and precision of just about every human ability.

Secondly, inhibition operates simultaneously at multiple levels of organisation, e.g:

Neural network

Our language, and in particular metaphor, makes it very easy for the mind to slip between these levels without noticing. The concept of ‘inhibition’ seems to particularly lend itself to a sloppy kind of ‘mixing of levels’. The result can be creative but it can also lead to muddled thinking, and to the unwitting extension of research way beyond its remit.

Neural inhibition

The following schematic shows the principle components of a neural network – biological or computer. The cell body has multiple potential inputs (dendrites). These connect with other upstream neurons (the junction is a small gap called a synapse). Each input will either be active or not. The inputs can be active in two ways: excitatory (E) or inhibitory (I). If as a result of all the inputs in a short enough period of time the threshold of the receiving cell is exceeded it activates an output (via a single axion) – an E or I pulse depending on the type of cell it is.

There are several points to note. The function of a neuron is chiefly determined by its connection with other neurons. However, no upstream neuron can control the firing of any downstream neuron because it provides only one input of many (on average 7,000). In this way each neuron is both autonomous and dependent on its neighbours. This is an example of the general phenomenon Ken Wilber calls “agency-in-communion”.2

When a pathway of cells is followed it appears that a signal or message is being ‘passed on’ (as in the children’s game Chinese Whispers) but this is not the case, each neuron is either firing or not.

Neurons form highly interconnected small-world networks with between two and three degrees of separation (compared to six degrees in social networks).3

What is more, neuronal networks are dynamic. They change in four basic ways. Sebastian Seung explains the 4 R’s:

Neurons adjust or reweight their connections by strengthening or weakening them. Neuron reconnect by creating and eliminating synapses, and they rewire by growing and retracting branches. Finally, entirely new neurons are created and existing one eliminated, through regeneration.4

Neuronal inhibition can occur at multiple levels: with a single neuron; with a local neural cluster; and with a widely distributed network of neurons.

What does inhibition do?

Below we interweave quotations from Guy Claxton’s The Wayward Mind and Ian McGhilcrist’s The Master and His Emissary.5 These two scholars explain how the inhibitory mechanisms confer on human beings much of their ability and intelligence. We have highlighted the points that we consider most germane to how we are approaching this topic.

We will start with Guy Claxton on the value of inhibition: (pp. 260-269)

The most basic form of activation in the brain is excitation. … But not all of the reciprocal influences in the brain are of this excitatory type. Many are inhibitory; they make their downstream neighbours not more, but less likely to become active, and thus they become effectively muzzled or suppressed. Being able to deploy patterns of inhibition as well as excitation confers on the human brain a good deal of its recent evolutionary power.

Why is inhibition so useful? In general, because it acts like the brake on a car. If you have a brake as well as an accelerator, you have much finer control over your speed and your steering. If the brain can inhibit as well as excite, it has much finer control over both the spreading and the sequencing of its own activation. Rather than activation just spreading out across the brain, like a blob of ink on a piece of blotting paper, it can be corralled and channelled much more precisely.

The importance of inhibition has been recognised for nearly 150 years. In 1863 the Russian physiologist Ivan Sechenov discovered that the stimulation of certain regions of a frog’s brain could override reflexes that were normally involuntary, and he linked this to the human ability to inhibit our own movements, as when we ‘suffer in silence’ at the dentist. He observed that inhibition also gave rise to greater motor control – ‘one finger can be moved separately only if the movement of the other fingers is inhibited’ – and that the balance of activation and inhibition thus vastly increased the range and precision of all kinds of physical skill. ‘Releasing forces acting on the brain from moment to moment shut out from activity whole regions of the nervous system, as they conversely call other vast regions into play’, Sechenov observed.

But he went further than this, and argued that it was inhibition that enables the brain to decouple ‘thinking’ from ‘action’, and thus allow us to muse, meditate and consider options free of the natural tendency to transform fear or desire immediately into behaviour. ‘What, actually, is the process of thinking?’ he asked. ‘It is the series of interconnected notions and concepts which exists in man’s consciousness at a given time, and which is not expressed in external manifestations.’ Sechenov’s contemporary, the British neurologist David Ferrier, spotted a further implication.

In 1876 he concluded: ‘By checking the tendency to outward diffusion in actual motion, we thereby increase the internal diffusion, and concentrate consciousness. For the degree of consciousness is inversely proportional to the amount of external diffusion in action.’ In other words, if the natural outflow of activation is dammed, it can build up behind the dam, creating stiller pools in which more conscious kind of fish may begin to breed.

Action, dampened, becomes the internalised, mental rehearsal of action, while perception, dampened, becomes the internal visualising, hearing and feeling that are the embodiments of imagination. … Inhibition is capable of editing and distorting how unconscious brain activity gives rise to consciousness, without necessarily dampening or damming the flow of activation in the brain itself. Excitation and inhibition do not just cancel each other out, like adding ‘+4’ and ‘-4’ and getting zero.

Ian McGhilcrist uses the same brakes on a car metaphor as Claxton to further warn us: (pp. 17-18)

Inhibition is not a straightforward concept. Inhibition at the neurophysiological level does not necessarily equate with inhibition at the functional level, any more than letting your foot off the brake pedal causes the car to halt: neural inhibition may set in train a sequence of activity, so that the net result is functionally permissive.

And McGhilcrist calls upon his own historical hero: (p. 9)

The great physiologist, Sir Charles Sherrington, observed a hundred years ago that one of the basic principles of sensorimotor control is what he called ‘opponent processors’. I agree with Marcel Kinsbourne that the brain is, in one sense, a system of opponent processors. In other words, it contains mutually opposed elements whose contrary influence make possible finely calibrated responses to complex situations. Kinsbourne points to three such oppositional pairings within the brain that are likely to be of significance. These could be loosely described as

‘up/down’ (the inhibiting effect of the cortex on the more basic automatic responses of the subcortical regions),
‘front/back’ (the inhibiting effects of the frontal lobes on the posterior cortex) and
‘right/left’ (the influence of the two hemispheres on one another).

McGhilcrist uses a ‘front/back’ example of “paired opponent processors” to explain how the role of inhibition is more subtle that often presupposed, enabling a fine-grained modulation of response: (pp. 91-92)

The relationship of the frontal lobes, the most highly evolved and most distinctively human of all regions of the brain, with the processes going on elsewhere in the brain, including the posterior cortex, which they exist to exert control over. The frontal lobes achieve what they achieve largely through what is normally described as inhibition of the posterior part of the same hemisphere. It might be better described, however, especially in the case of the right hemisphere as modulation – the inhibitory effect is ‘significantly more pronounced’ in the case of the left hemisphere, perhaps in keeping with its less integrated, more black and white, style.

What do I mean by modulation? A process that resists, but does not negate. It is best thought of as the imposition of necessary distance, or delay, enabling something new to come forward. In this way it is like the apparently antagonistic relationship of the two hemispheres: it is neither that the products of one hemisphere negate the products of the other, nor that in some bland sense they merely ‘complement’ one another. Their incompatibility permits instead, in a dialectical synthesis, something new to arise. To take an example: if the right hemisphere’s immediacy of association with emotion and the body leads it to prioritise what is close, what is ‘mine’, the right frontal lobe brings distance and delay to espousing ‘my’ position. As a result it enables others to stand forth as individual’s like ‘me’; it enables a broader empathy and the beginnings of altruism. This is not a negation of something by the frontal lobe, but a modulation of it, an ‘unpacking’, if you like, of something that was there all along, albeit in germ only – something that comes to life only when a degree of necessary distance is interposed.

Claxton gives more historical background:

David Ferrier also foresaw what present-day neuroscience has confirmed: that the degree of inhibition, and the benefits that it bestows, develop throughout childhood. … Ferrier was one of the first to localise this power of inhibition in the frontal lobes – the part of the brain that is massively developed in human beings as compared with any other animal. He observed, for example, that injury to the frontal lobes does not lead to any obvious impairment of skill. However, the consequent loss of fine inhibitory control ’causes a form of mental degradation, which may be reduced in ultimate analysis to loss of the faculty of attention’. Focussed attention relies upon inhibition, for it involves prioritising and excluding, saying ‘Not now!’ to competing needs and stimulation. Without that ability, a person falls prey to all kinds of distractions, and in particular, their longer-term goals and deeper values may never surface, being constantly drowned out by the incessant clamour of more immediate calls on attention. …

Excitation and inhibition may spread at different rates. First, quick, rather indiscriminate waves of excitation ripple out from the epicentres that have been activated by the senses; and then, as their significance is weighed up, the duller ones get suppressed until a central core remains. And if this is then strong or significant enough to become conscious, a general wave of inhibition goes out to ‘clean the blackboard’ of all the accumulated provisional jottings and impressions, so that the next event can be inscribed on a background of relevant, as opposed to irrelevant detail. …

So inhibition is used not only to dam the outflow of the brain; it is also employed to accentuate, or attenuate, areas of its own internal workings. But it does not do so ‘mindlessly’ or mechanically. Where and how fast it does depends on what the brain as a whole is up to. It also depends, … on whose brain it is. In unpicking some of the clever ways in which the frontal lobes of the brain control the use of inhibition, we can begin to see how some of the conundrums of the unconscious may be accounted for in a new kind of way: not in terms of a mysterious sub-compartment of the mind, or a ghost in the machine, but as reflections of the brain’s intrinsic – but unconscious – inhibitory intelligence.

McGhilcrist hones in on another area of the brain, the corpus callosum, the broad band of nerve fibers joining the two hemispheres: (pp. 17-18)

The corpus callosum contains an estimated 300-800 million fibers connecting topologically similar areas in either hemisphere. Yet only two percent of cortical neurones are connected by this tract. What is more, the main purpose of a large number of these connections is actually to inhibit – in other words to stop the other hemisphere interfering. …  Even the excitatory fibers often terminate on intermediary neurones, or ‘interneurones’, whose function is inhibitory.

The evidence is that the primary effect of callosal transmission is to produce functional  inhibition. So much is this the case that a number of neuroscientists have proposed that the whole point of the corpus callosum is to allow one hemisphere to inhibit the other. Simulation of neurones in one hemisphere commonly results in an initial brief excitatory response, followed by a prolonged inhibitory arousal in the other, contralateral, hemisphere. Such inhibition can be widespread, and can be seen on imaging.

Let’s jump several levels from neurological process to behavioural problems – sometimes, Claxton says, inhibition can “go wrong”: (pp. 271-277)

Like the brakes on a car, inhibition makes possible greater control – but only if used appropriately. … Behavioural inhibition can go wrong when it is either over- or under-used. … People who suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome, in which they are unable to stop themselves blurting out all kinds of socially inappropriate thoughts and feelings, are bedeviled by an inability to inhibit themselves. On the other hand, over-inhibition can be equally troublesome. Children who have not yet mastered the art of selective inhibition may overdo it, in the midst of a temper tantrum, and get locked into a kind of physical paralysis – which would be called catatonia, if they were adult schizophrenics – that can result in complete bodily rigidity, and perhaps the inability even to breathe (giving rise to what used to be called a ‘blue fit’). …

When inhibition is lax or unstable, it becomes impossible to maintain concentration, and perception becomes scattered and diffuse. When both attention and behaviour are uncontrollable, as occurs with some children, the resulting syndrome is commonly referred to as ‘attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder’, ADHD. It is important to remember, in this context, that what we are seeing may be a loss of flexibility of control, leading to inappropriate ways of attending, rather than a biochemically caused ‘inability’. … Though the mechanism that underlies some children’s scattiness involves a lack of neural inhibition, this does not mean that their brains need fixing with a sedative. Perhaps … the fault lies in the learned triggering of disinhibition, rather than the basic consistency of their brains’ chemical soup.

In the phenomenon known as ‘perceptual defense’, when [research subjects] have to detect words flashed very briefly, many people require an exposure three times as long to ‘see’ a taboo word as they do to detect a neutral one. The idea of cortical inhibition shows us how this self-protective trick can be accomplished. The word is recognised unconsciously, as a result of which the brain instantly deploys a corollary pattern of inhibition that effectively raises the threshold for consciousness. It damps its own activity, and thus prevents certain experiences from rising above the horizon of the unconscious.

Perceptual disinhibition may also account for some of the more unusual forms of human experience: … Compelling auditory hallucinations, for example … [are] much much more likely to occur under conditions of stress, where the inhibitory resources of the brain may be stretched to the limit. … At the end of one’s tether, there may simply be insufficient inhibition to go around, and some of the brain functions – such as imagination – that normally consume a portion of this resource may find themselves operating without the expected ‘braking’. At the same time, there may also be a build-up in … adrenalin and other stress-released hormones. As these find their way to the frontal lobes, so some of the normal functioning of the brain may be modulated or compromised: in particular, the flexible control of inhibition. …

McGhilcrist adds his own example: (p. 90)

‘Environmental dependency’ syndrome refers to an inability to inhibit automatic responses to environmental cues. Individuals displaying such behaviour will, for example, pick up a pair of glasses that are not their own and put them on, just because they are lying on the table, involuntarily pick up a pen and paper and start writing, or passively copy the behaviour of the examiner without being asked to, even picking up a stethoscope and pretending to use it.

Claxton concludes by returning to where he started: (pp. 296-7)

To go back to my original analogy, [excitation and inhibition] function like accelerator and brake in a car. Both can be ‘full on’ at the same time, and when they are, the resultant strain may risk shaking the vehicle to pieces. That, presumably, is why repression is not, after all, an entirely benign method of self-protection. Habitual repressors, people who exert high degrees of inhibitory control over their conscious experience, show exaggerated physical responses to alarming events, and are more likely to suffer from a variety of physical complaints, including hypertension and cancer. Having surveyed the literature for the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, Drew Westen concludes that ‘inhibiting conscious access to one’s emotions places the body, particularly the heart and the immune system, under considerable stress’. …

[When] inhibition does not switch off the activation of troublesome areas of the brain, or the ‘magnetic fields’ of unconscious desire that keep drawing activation towards them, it sets up counter-fields, and thus creates complex cross-currents in the brain that may lead to unpredictable and unstable resolutions.

And lastly, lets take a look at creativity. Claxton says: (pp. 260-269)

There are many interesting and puzzling aspects to creativity, of which I shall [mention] just two: how it is that creative ideas so often just pop into our minds ‘out of the blue’; and why is it that some people are more creative than others? Research by Colin Martindale, at the University of Maine, suggests that variations in the inhibitory activity of the brain can account for both [kinds of creativity]. …

The thinking behind the experiment was this. Creativity consists of both inspiration and elaboration phases, but the kind of thinking that each requires is different. When looking for inspiration, people need to let the excitation of their brains preponderate over inhibition, so that a variety of ideas can be concurrently active, and their ripples can spread out more widely, overlap and thus bring to light new connections. You want to encourage a state of mind which is not the ‘winner takes all’ mode of focussed, purposeful attention, but one which delays foreclosure, and permits wider exploration of a priori less likely – i.e. less stereotyped or conventional – associations. … This kind of low-inhibition brain activity shows up on the EEG as what are called ‘alpha waves’.

When you move into the elaboration phase of creativity, however, you want your brain to behave differently. You want it to be more selective, critical and purposeful. In other words, you now want to deploy more inhibition, to suppress ideas other than the one you are working up, and to keep your thought processes more in order and on track. You want the centre of activation to be corralled by an inhibitory stockade that stops it leaking away. This kind of thinking shows up on the EEG as ‘beta waves’.

[Experiments by Martindale showed that for the inspiration phase especially creative people] showed a dramatic switch from beta to alpha. Their frontal lobes were exerting much less inhibitory control, so that the process of reverie could take its course, and come up with some novel connections. They weren’t ‘figuring’, they were daydreaming.

Inhibition, learning and the body

Jennifer de Gandt reminded us that, “the Alexander Technique has used the principle of inhibition as a keystone to their thought-directed body work.” She pointed out, “It is learning to inhibit which clears the way for the famous directions, such as ‘releasing the neck to let the back go forward and up’. Feldenkrais  acknowledged the genius of Alexander on the inhibition point but parted company with him on the need for directions.”

Feldenkrais[6] puts it this way:

Willpower is necessary only where ability to do is lacking. Learning, as I see it, is not the training of willpower but the acquisition of the skill to inhibit parasitic action and the ability to direct clear motivations as a result of self-knowledge. (p. xi)

If we try to learn any new skill, we find our muscles enacting not only the projected act, but also much else that is unnecessary and often contradictory to the motivated action.

Learning to inhibit unwanted contractions of muscles that function without, or in spite of, our will, is the main task in coordinating action. We have to learn to inhibit those cells of the motor cortex to which the excitation spreads. Before we become able to excite a precise pattern of cells in the wanted order, the neighboring cells all along the pattern of the cells essential to the movement become active. After adequate apprenticeship, when proficiency is achieved, only those cells that command the muscles for the desired performance send out impulses. All the others are inhibited. Without this inhibition, no coordinated action is possible.

The sensation of difficulty or resistance to action is indirectly due to the imperfect inhibition of the cells commanding the antagonistic muscles that are indispensable in forming the desired pattern. Most of the time it is not the simple inability to inhibit the parasitic contractions that is the problem, but the attempt to simultaneously enact mutually exclusive patterns … Correct coordinated action seems, and feels, effortless no matter how great the actual amount of work involved may be. (pp. 85-86)

Humberto Maturana and Pille Bunnell [7] point out an apparent paradox of learning. Neurobiologically, every movement is being inhibited as it occurs, and yet how do we learn to improve when attending to what we do inhibits what we do?:

The nervous system is a network of neuronal elements, which operates on excitations and inhibitions. Every movement we make entails excitations and inhibitions. In the most simple way, if I contract a muscle, other muscles (the antagonists) are inhibited. Further, there is inhibition within the process of contraction of any given muscle. The point is that this play between excitation and inhibition happens in every movement: Every movement is being inhibited as it occurs. This is why, if you are learning karate and you want to break a brick, you have to aim below the brick. If you aim at the brick, the force of the blow will be diminished because inhibition takes place before the intended movement is completed.

The coordination of excitation and inhibition is involved in all neuronal activities, including what we call thinking. It is in our neurobiology that attention on what we do inhibits what we do. This is why learning a task involves relaxation—not in terms of becoming limp or falling asleep but in terms of relaxing your attention, your intent of controlling what you are doing.

Some of our thoughts

At a biological level, excitation and inhibition are both active processes. It is only the resultant effect, as viewed from the outside, that gives the impression that inhibition removes or eliminates. Our language and the connotations associated with the word ‘inhibition’ make it a challenge to think of it as an action that does something rather than one that takes away or negates. The car brake analogies don’t help in this respect. Rather than consider excitation and inhibition as like ‘go’ and ‘stop’, they are sometimes more like ‘left’ and ‘right’ – they work together to do things that neither can do on their own.

In its simplest form we see inhibition as a relationship that involves three aspects:

an inhibitor [A]
an inhibited [B]
a means of inhibiting [➞]

When the wider system or a longer time frame is taken into account, feedback is also involved (which itself can be inhibited):

All complex systems need inhibitory processes (dampening feedback loops) to prevent them escalating (as a result of amplifying feedback loops) beyond thresholds which threaten their ability to self-perpetuate.[8]

A double-bind is an inhibitory process that operates on two levels. At one level, two “mutually opposed elements” produce a problematic context that is unresolvable within the logic/level of the bind. And then, at a higher level, a further inhibitory process prevents the person, group or organisation from implementing solutions outside the binding logic.

Changing a habit involves inhibition at multiple timeframes. There is an important difference between ‘interrupting a pattern’ in the moment, ‘breaking a habit’ and being ‘someone who doesn’t smoke/cheat/lie/etc.’. For example, a person who wants to stop smoking requires a fast-acting way to inhibit each craving for a cigarette as soon as it happens. And, sustaining that long-enough for the craving to pass may involve a different kind of “prolonged inhibitory arousal”. In addition, a much more general kind of inhibiting will be required to become a non-smoker (e.g. not buying cigarettes, not being in the presence of people smoking, not using cigarettes to satisfy a need, etc).  These might be called impulse inhibition which operates in the moment over very short timescales, sustained inhibition required over the medium term (minutes to several weeks), and habit inhibition which may need to last for years or even a lifetime.

Nine Functions of Inhibition

Neurons can have an excitatory [E] or inhibitory [I] action. Excitatory neurons result in further neuronal activity downstream, while inhibitory neurons suppress it. By varying the interaction of these two processes a bewildering array of functionality is possible. We have used schematic diagrams to illustrate nine of the more common functions.[9]

There are also some early indications that inhibitory processes play a role in mirror neurons. [10]

Problems of Inhibition

Problems associated with inhibition mostly involve a combination of two variables:  

  • Amount – Scale – Degree
  • Appropriateness for context/purpose

Deciding that an occurrence is problematic requires a judgement as to whether the amount or lack of inhibition satisfies a ‘fitness for purpose’ criteria. It can be summed up by the adverb ‘too’ – meaning to a greater degree than is desirable. This can be assessed:

Before – predicted effect of inhibition
During – in real time (requires sufficient and timely feedback)
After   – reflection on actual effect of inhibition.

Using the standard models of Symbolic Modelling we can see a variety of ways in which inhibiting can result in problematic effects:
FormSize/Amount Too little (not enough)
Too much 
 SensitivityNot sensitive (responsive) enough
Too sensitive
 FunctionInappropriate type (of inhibition)
SpaceShape/AreaToo focussed
Too diffused
TimeOccurrenceToo early
Too late
 DurationToo little/short
Too much/long
LevelToo lowToo detailed
Under-generalised (not enough pattern)
Too few examples
 Too highToo abstract
Over-generalised (spurious pattern)
Perceiver Inappropriate agent/part/self
Inappropriate intention/purpose
Context     Inappropriate time and place

It is important to remember that the result of any inhibition is only appropriate – depending on the circumstances. And that one person’s ‘too much’ is another person’s ‘too little’, especially in a different time and place.


Using the McGilchrist and Claxton quotes as a springboard, a whole number of self-modelling activities come to mind:

a. What is it we need to inhibit ourselves from (=X)? Create an example of X (either an actual item or a symbolic representation). Place that were it needs to be, and then place yourself in relation to that when you are: not inhibited; somewhat inhibited; and fully inhibited from X. Continue with a Clean Space exploration.

b. You could also do #1 the other way round, i.e. with something you need/want to be less inhibited.

c. McGilchrist says the brain has “mutually opposed elements whose contrary influence make possible finely calibrated responses to complex situations”. These are equivalent to Claxton’s brake and accelerator metaphor. How do you experience the relationship between ‘excitation’ and ‘inhibition’? Apparently, our most cherished qualities/skills/behaviours require us to use both and stay within limits. Be facilitated to self-model how you do that.

d. McGilchrist also says inhibition can be a form of modulation i.e. “A process that resists, but does not negate. It is best thought of as the imposition of necessary distance, or delay, enabling something new to come forward.” How do you do that?

e. Claxton gives a physical example,”one finger can be moved separately only if the movement of the other fingers is inhibited” and “the balance of activation and inhibition thus vastly increases the range and precision of all kinds of physical skill.” What happens when we deliberately inhibit something physical? What is made possible when we ‘sit still’ or ‘sit on our hands’ or ‘stand up straight’ or ‘lie flat’ etc.? Another person can ensure (nonverbally) that you maintain the proscribed posture, movement or stillness.

f. Claxton says inhibition “enables the brain to decouple thinking from action“. How does that work? When doesn’t it? And when is it not a good idea? [11]

g. Claxton: “Excitation and inhibition may spread at different rates.” What are some examples of this happening in your life? What effect does it have? And how can you adjust these rates as required?

h. Claxton: “Behavioural inhibition can go wrong when it is either over- or under-used.” Where are the limits/thresholds of each? How do you know when you (or another) are approaching, are at, or have gone beyond these limits?

i. McGhilcrist says there is often an “initial brief excitatory response, followed by a prolonged inhibitory arousal”. Philip Harland wondered “How often have you had an initial leap of interest or excitement at something that popped into consciousness, only to damp it down after a second’s reflection?” When is this useful and when is it not? And what needs to happen to utilise these abilities even more effectively?

j. What is the difference between disinhibition – inhibiting inhibition – and just not inhibiting in the first place? Where might disinhibition come in handy?

k. Claxton quotes research that suggests variations in the inhibitory activity of the brain can account for aspects of creativity. Can you identify what excitatory and inhibitory aspects contribute each phase of the Dreamer, Realist, Critic phases of Robert Dilts’ Disney Creative Strategy?[12]

l. Assume taking ‘the road less travelled’ (M Scott Peck) involves inhibiting that which would have us follow ‘the path of least resistance’ (Robert Fritz). Identify a personal example and be facilitated to self-model how you were able to do that.


1 Last year James suggested inhibition would be an interesting topic for the Clean & Emergent Research Group.–Emergent-Research-Group/ It turned out that he couldn’t attend and they held a day on the ‘inhibition of left brain chatter’. These notes address the topic from a different angle.

2 Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Shambhala 1995.

3 See James’ notes on Thinking Networks II at

4 Sebastian Seung, Connectome: How the brain’s wiring makes us who we are, Allen Lane, 2012.

5 Guy Claxton, The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious, Abacus, 2006.

Ian McGhilcrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press, 2010.

6 Moshe Feldenkrais, The Potent Self, Frog Limited, 1985. And see our paper, Body Awareness.

7 Humberto Maturana & Pille Bunnell, The Biology of Business: Love Expands Intelligence, Reflections, Vol 1, No 2, 1999, The Society for Organizational Learning and MIT.

8 See our paper on Feedback Loops,

9 The role of schematic diagrams in Symbolic Modelling is described in our article, Embodied Schema: The basis of embodied cognition.

10 See James’ blog Monkey See, Monkey Don’t, 24 Jan 2011.

11 Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Allen Lane, 2005. And see James’ blog, Making Complex Decisions Rapidly,

12 Robert Dilts, Strategies of Genius, Volume I, Meta Publications, 1994

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