What is Inhibition?

You come to learn to inhibit and to direct your activity.You learn, first, to inhibit the habitual reaction to certain classes of stimuli, and second, to direct yourself consciously in such a way as to affect certain muscular pulls, which processes bring about a new reaction to these stimuli. Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus. But no one will see it that way. They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind.
It is that a pupil decides what he will or will not consent to do. They may teach you anatomy and physiology till they are black in the face – you will still have this to face, sticking to a decision against the habit of life.” – F. M. Alexander 

Inhibition is the act of refusing to do something.  At the moment you are about to sit down, for instance, if you stop yourself and say, “No, I won’t do that,” that’s inhibition.  It is the act of refusing consent to an action.

Inhibition is central to the problem of coordinating the system in action because it is the means by which we stop the harmful habits of use which we all have. In a very broad sense, we use inhibition in all facets of life, such as when, at the moment of crossing the street, we stop and look for traffic, or think before we speak so that we are sure not to offend someone. We also use inhibition when we learn something new, and have to stop ourselves from blindly trying the same thing over and over again to get it right, and instead slow ourselves down and think of different ways of doing things.  Inhibition is not acting impulsively; it is thinking before you act.

In our work, however, inhibition has a very specific application, since it is used, not simply to act more intelligently in a general sense, but to consciously direct the use of ourselves in activity. To give an example, let’s say that, when you sit down in a chair, you tighten and tense your neck, and pull back your head.  It’s very hard to stop that tension because it’s so ingrained and habitual. But if, at the moment of sitting, you say, “I’m not going to sit; I’m going to inhibit my stimulus to sit and instead I’m going to wait,” and then think through how to sit in a new way that does not include this tightening, then you have a chance of succeeding. That’s how inhibition is used in changing our habitual manner of using ourselves.

The word “inhibition” is borrowed from neurophysiology, where we have the idea of inhibition, as well as excitation, of nervous impulses. When we move, certain muscles receive messages to contract through the excitation of nerves. In order for the movement to take place when these muscles tighten, their opposing muscles must be inhibited from tightening. So, as we contract the biceps in order to lift something, we inhibit contraction of the triceps to allow that movement. We normally think of muscular action in relation to movement, but this aspect of the activity, the inhibition of muscles, is just as much an active part of the neurophysiological process of action as excitation is. F.M. Alexander liked this concept, or the word, and used it to describe the process of stopping.

But inhibition, as Alexander uses it, isn’t specific to this idea of stopping the contraction of a muscle. We often speak of inhibition this way, and it’s important to be precise about its meaning. When I sit down, it’s true that I can try to “inhibit” the tightening of my neck while continuing the action of sitting, but Alexander didn’t actually define the term in this way. According to his writing, inhibition is refusing to perform the entire action, of which tightening the neck is a part—in this case, sitting. Inhibition is not the refusal to tighten neck muscles when sitting; it is the refusal of consent to the entire act.  Only then, when I have fully inhibited that action, can I conceive of a totally new way of sitting that does not include a tight neck. 

Why is it necessary to conceive of an entirely new way to sit? Why can’t we just inhibit neck tension while still engaging in an action like sitting down? In our next post, we’ll talk about ideomotor action, explain the deep connection between thought and action, and why they cannot be easily uncoupled. Stay tuned!