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Inhibition: The Counterintuitive Key to Creativity

Research on intelligence and creativity inspires release of divergent thinking.

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep." —Scott Adams

by Grant H. Brenner

Creativity is a mysterious and coveted trait, the subject of much research and ongoing unclarity. When we talk about creativity, most often people are thinking about divergent thinking, the ability to generate many higher-quality ideas. Creativity is about quantity and quality, defined in relation to the task at hand. Sometimes the task is more open-ended, as it might be for an artist finding their own idiom.

When you collect shells and pebbles at the beach, how do you decide which ones to keep? The implication is that, all other factors being equal, there is a trade-off between quantity and quality, but that optimizing both is ideal to come up with the maximum number of viable solutions.

Intelligence and creativity

In their paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Benedek, Franz, Heene and Neubauer (2012) devised a study to glean further insight into this important connection. While ironically this is not news, it bears repetition.

They note the prior literature has been unclear on a key factor of intelligence, namely inhibitory control, when it comes to creativity. Some studies suggest inhibition improves creative output, while a familiar conception is that creative people are less inhibited. Others see the relationship between creativity and inhibition as more complex, perhaps requiring a balance of inhibition and disinhibition, in just the right ways.

In their study, they recruited 109 students, average age of 23.6 years, and administered a series of measures. First, they studied cognitive inhibiting using the Mittenecker Pointing Test, during which participants must generate random sequences of responses within a set time frame. This requires them to inhibit repetitive responses to perform well.

Divergent thinking was assayed using parts of the Berlin-Intelligence-Structure (BIS) test, which requires participants to complete verbal tests, find as many uses for common objects as they can, identify as many qualities as possible for something, and related tasks which get at different categories of idea generation. The BIS was also used to assess intelligence across several domains, verbal, figural and numerical.

Testing gets at both ideational fluency (how many ideas) and flexibility (diversity across categories). They also tested for ideational originality, a measure of quality creative thought, by having participants’ responses to a problem-solving task rated by five different trained raters. Altogether, in addition to the component scores, performance here reflected overall divergent thinking.

Researchers also looked at how creative participants saw themselves, using both a measure of self-reported creative behavior called the Runco Ideational Behavior Scale, personality called the Creative Personality Scale, and a report on how often participants engaged in 48 common activities as creators (e.g. poetry, art, etc.). Because dissociative capacity has been connected with creativity in prior studies, two measures of the ability to disconnect (e.g. generating specifically unrelated ideas) were administered.

Shiny things

First, they found that cognitive inhibition is correlated with many measures of creative thinking, both divergent and self-reported creativity. Inhibition was also correlated with dissociative ability, which in turn was connected with divergent thinking. The ability to notice and block repetitive ideas that are not suitable to the task is key in order to “suppress the increasing proactive interference of previous responses in order not to get stuck with initial ideas.” It’s likely that this is especially important during brainstorming phases, whether early-on or later in the process when alternatives are needed. However, inhibition was not related to originality.

Looking at the role of intelligence, they found that intelligence predicted cognitive inhibition, but unlike inhibition alone, intelligence was significantly correlated with ideational originality. Intelligence drives both creative quantity and quality. Furthermore, self-reported creativity was also associated with both divergent quality and quantity.

The authors discuss the significance of their findings. First, the common notion that creativity requires disinhibition is thought to be incorrect. Rather than letting loose, though it may feel that way, creative generativity requires inhibiting undesirable responses. Getting them out of the way allows the brain to do its thing by reducing inhibiting factors that interfere with expressivity.

Implications and applications

In addition to the authors' notes, it’s important to think about how we are defining the word “inhibition.” This word gets a negative rap when it is used to describe personality, the implication being that the person is too repressed, unable to freely be themselves. Because the brain is a system of reciprocal processes best characterized as a network, a key way it works is through overlapping layers that influence one another (recursion).

So in order to “let go” of creative blocks, inhibiting inhibitions may be one of the names of the game by making room for new ideas by pushing old, stale ideas out of the way. Likewise for dissociation, the ability to disconnect from prior conceptions leaves more room for generativity, increasing overall entropy (which caffeine can increase1), or the number of possible states the brain may be in, sometimes called disorder.

While at the beginning, there is higher tolerance for “bad ideas,” as the creative process proceeds, intelligence—presumably based on prior experience and aesthetic development—is more selective in producing and selecting more original ideas. This is true for individuals involved in problem-solving, as well as for teams where idea generation can be disconnected from idea selection among different teammates who have different kinds of talent and experience, driving creative effectiveness.

The implications of this and related work on creativity, intelligence and inhibition may seem paradoxical. Exercising self-control may appear to dampen divergence, but research suggests that we can release creativity by inhibiting processes that impede idea generation. Inhibition of overly tight connections among ideas allows us to better able dissociate, driving lateral thinking by unleashing the idea to jump around among unrelated ideas.

Control yourself!

Practicing self-control during creative problem-solving means skipping over repetitive ideas and deploying intelligence to identify original ideas. In general, being able to turn inhibition on and off as called for is the best balance, requiring cognitive agility to toggle between and blend deliberate, more effortful reflective thinking" and more from-the-gut, free-flowing "intuitive thinking."

Knowing how to combine novelty with repetitive elements creates an aesthetically pleasing blend of originality and consistency, the hallmark of awe-inspiring, rewarding experience. It is often helpful to inhibit immediate execution, needless to say perhaps. Having a good idea, and then holding off on putting into action in order to incubate, refine and get feedback, gets better results.

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1. Caffeine Caused a Widespread Increase of Resting Brain Entropy (2018)

Abstract: Entropy is an important trait of brain function and high entropy indicates high information processing capacity. We recently demonstrated that brain entropy (BEN) is stable across time and differs between controls and patients with various brain disorders. The purpose of this study was to examine whether BEN is sensitive to pharmaceutical modulations with caffeine. Both cerebral blood flow (CBF) and resting fMRI were collected from sixty caffeine-naïve healthy subjects before and after taking a 200 mg caffeine pill. Our data showed that caffeine reduced CBF in the whole brain but increased BEN across the cerebral cortex with the highest increase in lateral prefrontal cortex, the default mode network (DMN), visual cortex, and motor network, consistent with the beneficial effects of caffeine (such as vigilance and attention) on these areas. BEN increase was correlated to CBF reduction only in several regions (−0.5 < r < −0.4), indicating a neuronal nature for most of the observed BEN alterations. In summary, we showed the first evidence of BEN alterations due to caffeine ingestion, suggesting BEN as a biomarker sensitive to pharmaceutical brain function modulations.

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