It always seems like we need to do more: more work, more speed, more strength, more learning. Often it feels like we can’t keep up. So it is very curious to me that our nervous system is made useful by doing less.
You see, the nervous system operates at full blast all the time but we exert control, focus, and direction, everything that enables us to function in this world, by selectively turning off parts of the system. This process is inhibition. It is embedded in the very structure of our organism down to the cellular level.
Most mechanical and electrical systems are controlled by inhibition. Think about your cell phone for a minute. When you turn it on it is on, not half on. The battery doesn’t just make some of its power available, all of it is there in the system. The apps on your phone don’t need to be created when you want to use them because they are already there BUT they are inhibited. They are being prevented from getting energy directed through the circuitry in the way they require so they can function. You activate them by pressing the icon or key to remove the inhibition. When you are done with the app you inhibit energy going through the circuitry that the app needs and thus stop it from running. But it isn’t gone, it will function again in the same manner once you lift the inhibition of the battery energy so it can flow again in the same way. In the meantime the battery will continue to have all its power available in the system.
The human body is not a phone but the principle is still the same - the nervous system runs at full power all the time and we inhibit parts of it to do what we do.
In fact, when a person has a severe brain injury you can sometimes tell what part of the brain is injured just from the pattern the person’s muscles go into spasm. This is because the inhibition from the injured area is no longer preventing the full blast muscle contraction. In our nervous system inhibition occurs in many ways and in many places anatomically, and there are feedback loops so we can alter the inhibition which enables us to learn and change. At its most basic level inhibition occurs when information being carried by a nerve, any nerve, is prevented from transferring that signal to the next nerve cell in the chain, which can occur anywhere nerves meet - from the sensory organ in the big toe to between brain cells.
The net result is that the data we receive from the world is edited repeatedly before it reaches our consciousness so we can focus on what we want to do at the moment and tune out the unneeded information or noise. Inhibition also regulates the output of the nervous system, so it affects how fast we can think, how many things we can attend to, how hard we can contract our muscles, and how fast we can contract our muscles repetitively.
There are many reliable stories of people in distress lifting a car or doing other feats of strength because the release of adrenaline has chemically prevented the inhibition of their muscle contraction. The reason no human runs a mile in two minutes is not because well trained runners cannot deliver enough oxygen or sugar to the muscles or carry away waste fast enough. It is because they are inhibited from sending signals telling the muscles to contract and relax at a fast enough rate.
Inhibition is how we control ourselves, so learning how to refine, direct, expand, contract, and selectively engage inhibition is extremely important if we want to improve or change our minds, our bodies or even our lives.
Wonderfully, our system is dynamic and changes based on how we use it. This means we can consciously change our inhibition control of our nervous system.
Many different disciplines have been created that rely on getting us to change our inhibition patterns. Meditation and other mindfulness programs look to quiet the mind, to increase our skills at inhibiting the noise and chatter inside and outside of ourselves. The Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais method and other movement retraining programs assist people in learning how to inhibit their habitual movement reactions to internal and external stimuli and replace habitual patterns with rational thinking to consciously select movement choices. Martial arts, especially the soft forms like Aikido and Kung Fu teach people to learn how to inhibit resistance to an opponent’s movement and instead flow with it and direct it.
No matter what method is used, developing awareness and control of inhibition is a vital piece of how we move in the world.