This is part 3 in a series about executive function. It looks at the regulation functions that are related to initiating, monitoring and inhibiting our actions and thoughts. Looking for the other parts? Part 1 | Part 2
The second category of executive function components, regulation, includes cognitive flexibility and the initiation, monitoring and inhibition of actions. These executive functions are primarily related to how we interact with our environment.
When you think of inhibition, you probably think of the common usage which means a feeling of self-conscious restraint. The inhibition related to executive function is somewhat different. It refers to our ability to block or suppress a thought or action, either consciously or subconsciously.
Biologically, inhibition takes place in three different realms: motor inhibition, cognitive inhibition and emotional inhibition. It’s quite possible that you’ve never even thought about inhibition in this way and yet it has a huge impact on your daily life.
Our brains are constantly inhibiting–or failing to inhibit–thoughts and actions. To focus attention on one thing, we have to inhibit countless other distracting inputs (remember the top-down and bottom-up attention systems as well as selective attention). To call up a desired piece of information from memory, we have to inhibit the retrieval of millions of irrelevant bits of information. To change a behavior we have to inhibit habitual actions. And sometimes, to get through a difficult situation, we have to inhibit our emotional reactions (or, if you’re alexithymic, consider the opposite case–your emotions are involuntarily inhibited, perhaps in part because of dysfunctional inhibition).
When you think about it, a lot of autistic traits could be traced back to poor inhibition. Infodumping, even when we know the other person has lost interest. Catastrophizing long past the point where it’s logical. Blurting out what we’re thinking only to regret it a split second later. Spending the day lost in a special interest when we really did mean to get all those chores done. Even stimming could be viewed as poor motor inhibition. What if all people have a natural tendency to stim, but neurotypical people are just better at naturally inhibiting their motor function?
Extreme difficulty with inhibition can lead to impulsivity, which is more characteristic of ADHD than autism, but can be present in both. Often, impulsivity is mistaken for problem behavior and met with punishment as a means to extinguish the problem. Like other aspects of dysfunctional EF, poor inhibition isn’t something that can be fixed by simply trying harder or having more self-discipline. Support can help. Accommodations can help. Understanding can help. Practice can help. Punishment and shaming only hurt. Continue reading Executive Function Primer (Part 3)