Home > Attention, Memory > I don’t want to think about it—Oh wait.

I don’t want to think about it—Oh wait.

Do you ever find yourself driving somewhere or walking to a place without even thinking about it? Take this for example: Your friend invited you over to their house to hang out. So you get ready to leave, jump in your car, and make your way there. As you begin to drive, you take all the normal turns you would to regularly get there until you realize you are five minutes away from their old address. They recently moved to a different house about 20 minutes from their old one, and what was going to be a 10 minute trip has turned into a 30 minute one. You’ve been to their new house before but for some reason you unconsciously still drove to their old address. Over time, you continuously begin to remember that your friend does not, in fact, live at their old address until the association with them and their new address remains in the forefront of your mind while the old address is locked away in your archives of “things that are a distant memory”.


Inhibition is used to help block out things that we don’t necessarily want to remember.

This happens to people all the time in different scenarios during our daily lives, but why does this happen even when we know the correct route to take or decision to make? One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Olivia O’Brien, made me wonder, briefly, this same thing after listening to her song “Inhibition” as it came on my playlist.

All this liquor in my system 

I ain’t got no inhibition

Always end up crying on my way home 

Drunk or sober what’s the difference 

Still ain’t got no one to listen 

Always end up crying on my way home

I never really knew what inhibition actually meant but it really didn’t matter to me, the song was catchy and I figured it probably made sense in the context of the lyrics. Next thing I knew, we were discussing O’Brien’s song title in my Cognitive Psychology class! Normally, I would be able to listen to music and go about my daily life without psychoanalyzing everything about it, but studying a subject such as cognitive psychology tends to make you question a lot of really normal processes that occur during everyday life. Taking this even further, to what extent can our inhibitory processes work sufficiently before we can’t keep unwanted memories from entering our present thinking state? What if you really didn’t have any inhibition  like Olivia O’Brien is claiming and how would it affect us mentally?

First, we should try and understand what inhibition is and how we are able to use it if we want to figure out what would happen without it, so let’s get into it:

We use inhibition very often in many different situations, whether it’s something like the described scenario above, or something as simple as focusing our attention in any given moment. In many ways, inhibition is a fancy way of describing our control of pulling out old memories when different things remind us of events or emotional responses that we don’t necessarily want or need to remember in that moment. Researchers Benjamin J. Levy and Michael C. Anderson in 2002 deeply explored the cognitive process of inhibition in many different ways which have helped us understand what it is and how it works. Among their studies, they have explained how this controlled memory retrieval can be caused by different actions we have learned over time or traumatic experiences that link certain things in our environment to specific memories. The parts of our brain that regulate our inhibition take control of different normal or overt behaviors and they also target memories that are directly related to a cue to manage retrieval of them. In a publication by Robert A. Bjork in 2016, Levy and Anderson explain further that we can look at our inhibitory processes as a way for us to suppress unwanted accessibility to particular memories. Things as simple as reading can cause us to use our inhibition to correctly read a word and find the right memory to pull into our working memory, or the part of our brain that takes care of our current and ongoing thoughts that we use to do things in real-time like riding a bike on a street or walking around campus.


The Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex, Anterior Cingulate Cortex, and the Orbitofrontal Cortex all work together in the inhibition process.


This sounds really helpful but you may be wondering how our brains can handle figuring all of this out for us so quickly and effectively. Thankfully, our inhibitory neurons do a really good job at communicating from one part of our brain to another making sure we use inhibition in our daily activities. How do they do this? let’s talk about it.

Angie McCalla, a speech and language Pathologist at Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers outlines the three parts of the brain involved in making sure our inhibition abilities are set and ready to go. These three parts are called the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC), the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC), and the Orbitofrontal Cortex (OFC), which all work with each other to ensure that certain unwanted responses to things we are seeing and doing don’t end up pushing their way through to our working memory. I know brain anatomy is not something that everyone likes to pick up a book and do some light reading on, so allow me to break it down in a way that is more easy to understand. The DLPFC is used to handle different thought processes and behaviors in the moment. Remember that working memory I was talking about? This part of the brain includes recalling information for our working memory (aka working recall) to use and it manages response inhibition, which is how we stop unwanted responses that are triggered by things in our environment from happening. The ACC helps find competing responses to a trigger and works to push back the incorrect response. Lastly, the OFC manages things such as impulse control and socially appropriate behaviors so that we don’t do things like laugh when something isn’t funny or cry when we aren’t sad. This seems like a lot and is a little confusing. It took me a second to figure this out too, but luckily Benjamin J. Levy and Michael C. Anderson thread it together nicely in their article in the 2002 issue of Trends In Cognitive SciencesThey explained that since the ACC can help identify when two responses are trying to respond to one trigger, it sends a signal through specific inhibitory neurons to the DLPFC to put more restraints on our working recall and to put our inhibitory processes into action. Our neurons then send a signal over to the OFC telling it to make a decision as to which response is the correct one to use based on the trigger we are interacting with. In turn, the OFC shoots a signal to our working memory to inhibit the other unwanted response resulting in a (hopefully) correct response to the trigger. 


The different interactions between these different parts of our brain really make a big difference in how we interact with the world and the kinds of things we think about in our heads. It would makes sense that people may have a stronger ability to use their inhibition than others, which could lead to our question about what happens to people with a weaker sense or, in Olivia O’Brien’s case, no inhibition at all. First let’s explore the higher end of this inhibition spectrum by looking at those who have stronger inhibition. 

Now that we know way more about how inhibition works than we did before, it can help us understand how Kefi Mohamed Zeid explored a person’s ability to have a stronger inhibition than others and what kinds of behaviors help strengthen our inhibition. To do this, Zeid and his team conducted a study which uncovered that people who can fluently speak more than one language generally will have a more efficient ability to inhibit information.


The Stroop Task forces us to slow down and pull apart our automatic processes and inhibit our learned behaviors to correctly complete the task.

Using a total of 180 participants (90 younger and 90 older) who spoke both Arabic and French, Zeid tested them all on the Stroop Task with a slight twist. On top of reading the words, naming the colors, and the color-word condition, the participants also had a fourth condition in which they were shown the color-word condition but in the two languages (Arabic and French). Zeid and his team found that participants performed better on that test that was in their dominant language, but participants who were balanced in both languages performed equally as well on both the French and Arabic Stroop tests. Furthermore, they saw that when participants performed the Stroop task in their non-dominant language, it was harder to retrieve information the older a participant was. You may be wondering what the point of including this was, so let me explain: Since the older participants with a bias towards one language or the other had a progressively harder time on the Stroop Task in their non-dominant language, we can understand that over time, things that are not used as often can slowly became harder to access and are suppressed more heavily by our inhibition. We can also understand that continuing to practice something overtime can help strengthen our inhibition so that it doesn’t deplete over time. In other words, practice can’t necessarily make perfect as the saying goes, but it sure can help a lot.


Training our brain in different behaviors can help strengthen our inhibition!

Let’s circle back to our hypothetical selves driving to our friend’s house. If we think of the two addresses, old and new, as the two languages present in Zeid’s study, we can see how the old address may have once been the dominant language to us, which is why it isn’t as easy to inhibit at first. As we slowly begin to learn the new address, however, we strengthen what was initially our non-dominant language. The more we practice it and don’t practice the other language, we shift which one is our dominant and non-dominant source of information. Similar to Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsey Lohan in Freaky Friday (2003), a switch is made! Once this switch is made, the newly dominant language, or our friends new address, has easier access to our working memory, leaving the non-dominant language, or our friends old address, under a heavier influence from our inhibitory processes.


So, inhibition is clearly important for us in order to go about our day without being entirely conflicted with ourselves in what we are seeing and trying to interpret. Our brain works really hard to help us with this! And we know that we can strengthen our inhibition through a lot of practice. But what happens when we fail to use it? What if our brain misses these triggers and can’t decide which response is the appropriate one to use? It feels like it would lead to a catastrophic level explosion of information trying to be interpreted by our working memory, ending in what I imagine would be a mental breakdown of some sort.

In fact, a depleted ability to us our inhibition is a result of a few different kinds of really common disorders, including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and

Disorders including ADHD, OCD and depression cause inhibitory processes to weaken.

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Researchers from the CogniFit team explain that people who suffer from ADHD lack both behavioral and cognitive inhibition, which can lead to wandering around when they are bored and having an extremely hard time not getting distracted by things that can feel more interesting than what they are trying to focus on. They also explain the three different levels in which ADHD exposes itself: Motor level, attentional level, and behavioral level. At the motor level is where this action of wandering around can be seen due to hyperactivity. Next in the attentional level is where you can see a person being distracted by things around them, taking their focus off of what they should be paying attention to. Lastly in the behavioral level, we see impulsive behaviors that a lot of people can suppress, as an example think about road rage and honking your horn when you get mad at the person in front of you. In people who have OCD, Óscar Gonçalves explains in his research from 2016 that the same impulsive behaviors that surface by threat-evoking emotions from things in that persons environment aren’t inhibited correctly, which is why these corrective and impulsive behaviors occur. Lastly looking at people who suffer from depression, without the ability to inhibit unwanted responses or ideas as we talked about before, things like negative thoughts are harder to not let creep into the mind of someone who has depression. In 2009, Benedicte Gohier and a team of researchers wanted to see how the ability for someone to use inhibition is effected by MDD. In their study, they used 20 MDD diagnosed patients and 20 healthy people and used the Stroop Task and a number of other tests to find out if there was a difference between their two test groups. They found that the participants that suffered from MDD had significantly slower response times in each of the tests and overall performed much worse than the healthy individuals.

From all of this, it is clear that without inhibition, we would run into a lot of problems that effect us in various ways. Whether it is something that looks like ADHD or something that is harder to see visually like depression, inhibition is extremely important in order for you to go about your day easily, and individuals who suffer from different disorders, such as the ones I mentioned, have to work extra hard to live their lives in terms of what others consider normal. After this deep, deep dive into inhibition, what it is, and how it works, I can officially say that Olivia O’Brien’s song makes a lot more sense to me now, and that she is very lyrically gifted. Having no inhibition, or at least a weaker sense of inhibition, could lead to some pretty scary and challenging things. Maybe someone else who reads this and listens to the song will be able to appreciate it as much as I do right now.

For more information or resources concerning mental health, click here.



Anderson, M. C., and B. J. Levy. (2016). “On The Relationship Between Interference And Inhibition In Cognition.” Successful Remembering and Successful Forgetting: a Festschrift in Honor of Robert A. Bjork, by Robert A. Bjork and Aaron S. Benjamin, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, pp. 107–132.

CogniFit Research Team. (2016). “Inhibition: Cognitive ability making up part of our executive functions.” Retrieved 2020, from https://www.cognifit.com/science/cognitive-skills/inhibition

Gohier, B., Ferracci, L., Surguladze, S. A., Lawrence, E., El Hage, W., Kefi, M. Z., Allain, P., Garre, J. B., & Le Gall, D. (2009). “Cognitive inhibition and working memory in unipolar depression.” Journal of affective disorders, 116(1-2), 100–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2008.10.028

Gonçalves, Ó F., et al. (2016). “Cognitive and emotional impairments in obsessive–compulsive disorder: Evidence from functional brain alterations.” Porto Biomedical Journal,1(3), 92-105. doi:10.1016/j.pbj.2016.07.005

Levy, B. (2002). “Inhibitory processes and the control of memory retrieval.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(7), 299-305. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(02)01923-x 

McCalla, A. (2017). “Executive Functioning – Where is it Controlled and How Does it Develop? / Remediation Techniques for Deficits and Dysfunction.” https://www.rainbowrehab.com/executive-functioning/ 

Zied, K. M., Phillipe, A., Karine, P., Valerie, H., Ghislaine, A., Arnaud, R., & Didier, L. G. (2004). “Bilingualism and adult differences in inhibitory mechanisms: Evidence from a bilingual stroop task.” Brain and Cognition, 54(3), 254-256. doi:10.1016/j.bandc.2004.02.036

*Click images for reference

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