Latent Inhibition

All of us take in far more perceptual data than we are conscious of. Think of the number of hair follicles on your limbs: all of them generate impulses, or data, all the time. We may not be aware of this data, but it is there, available to our consciousness, should we turn towards it. Our bodies are astoundingly attuned perceptual instruments; our nervous system, and thus our whole being, resonates with everything around us. We “perceive,” i.e. consciously register, only a small fraction of this welter of data.*

Thankfully, we have a complex of nervous system functions which decide at great speed which bits of perception we need at any moment and which bits we don’t. We rely on this system to function. Without it, we would be unable to walk, or talk. Without it, we would quite possibly be unable to regulate our nervous systems at all. It’s a cognitive function that operates like a filter, and it is directly linked to our ability to make meaning out of what our bodies deliver as the raw perceptual material of our lives.

This system has been called “Latent Inhibition,” or the ability of our system to ignore ongoing streams of perceptual data that our system has already determined isn’t important to perceive. According to the wiki on it, the term arose from studies in conditioning. It is a function that operates unconsciously.

Creative people are blessed and cursed by a lower Latent Inhibition threshold. It’s from this bottomless well of perceptions that  rise to our font of connections between them, and it’s this access to a wider array of connections between perceptions that gives rise to a creative’s ability to stumble onto fresh meanings in her poetry, or painting, or music. It’s for this reason that creative people can be overwhelmed by the cultural/perceptual stimuli of a modern grocery store, for instance.

To illustrate, let’s imagine that while driving on the freeway in heavy traffic, an enormous flock of sparrows passed overhead. For the average person, this event may go completely unnoticed, as it is perceptual data that is irrelevant to the cultural and survival task that propelled him onto the freeway in the first place. For someone with a lower Latent Inhibition threshold, the event is not only perceived, but lights up sparks all over her associational learning networks, giving birth to feelings of connection, awe, and intimations of meanings that, with further thought and perception of the flock, might lead to melodies, lines in a poem, or a new invention. If she’s not careful, then this flood of associative resonance might cause her to lose her moorings in reality for a moment–and cause an accident.

Do you have stories of the results of inspiration in your life? Where do you believe creativity operates in your being? Where is creativity conscious for you, and where does it seem to operate outside of your awareness?

*    There are degrees of that consciously registering business, of course, ranging from something our sympathetic nervous system tunes into in our peripheral vision, but that our languaging consciousness doesn’t get a hold on, to a stop sign on the side of the road we’re driving on, which we (out of habit, of course) notice and obey. When you start to look at it, “consciousness” is quite a varied landscape.
watch “Stroke of Insight,” a TED Conference presentation by Jill Bolte Taylor, 03/2008, for a beautiful, multilayered and poetic expression of this at the TED Conference video archive


2 responses to “Latent Inhibition

  1. Wow. Yes, hadn’t thought of creativity from a neurobiological point of view before. We are all creative, I believe. It just happens to show up wildly differently one person to the next. Thought provoking stuff. Thank you.

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