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What is Latent Inhibition?

By Karize Uy
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Latent inhibition is a mental process in which an individual does not create any associations or meanings with a presented stimulus until a later period. Psychologists categorize this process under the Classical Conditioning type of learning. A person does not learn or experience any change from the initial exposure to a stimuli.

A common cause for latent inhibition is that the person is unfamiliar with the stimulus and automatically deems it insignificant or irrelevant to him. This lack of awareness tends to be involuntary, meaning the brain automatically carries out the process. This is one way to make sure that sensory overload does not happen, which can make an individual lose his concentration on a certain task. This may cause some learning delay about a specific object, but it also helps a person to learn and focus more on important stimuli.

Although the mental process is an automatic reaction, there are still people who find it difficult to disregard stimuli. These people are said to possess a low latent inhibition, making them notice irrelevant and trivial stimuli. People with this trait are easily distracted and highly sensitive; both traits may lead to social ineptness. The effects of low latency can depend on a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ). If a person has a high IQ, probably 130 and above, his low latent inhibition can manifest in creativity, while people whose IQs are lower than average can undergo psychosis.

A gifted or a genius individual with low latent inhibition—along with a good memory—tends to allow all kinds of information to be processed, leading to creative and innovative thoughts. They are also more capable of abstract and conceptual thinking. The ability to sift through all information and distinguish what is useful from what is not also contributes to creativity; the lack of this ability can cause a disordered mental state. Some scientists believe that latent inhibition is one way of explaining the correlation between genius and madness.

Low latent inhibition may account for why some historical people led troublesome lives. Robert Goddard, for example, was ridiculed in his time for his idea of rockets. Today, many space explorations were achieved because of his invention of the liquid-fueled rocket. Socrates, a thinker and philosopher, was not thought of highly by his peers. He was labeled as an immoral because of his ideas and was even sentenced to death. His contributions on the principles of knowledge, virtue, and ethics still hold a large influence in the field of humanities.

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Discussion Comments
By anon942600 — On Mar 28, 2014

I think you need to read Lubow and Moore. They are the authorities. Robert E. Lubow is the father of latent inhibition. The term did not exist before his research and he coined the term.

By anon348352 — On Sep 16, 2013

Miriam, I think you need to re-read the article on this subject. Latent Inhibition is the mind's subconscious ability to discount sensory data as irrelevant, based on prior experience, to prevent ongoing overload. So yes, we all have it, because we're all meant to have it. It's nothing to do with explicit memory.

By allenJo — On Dec 21, 2011

@everetra - Those are interesting rhetorical questions for sure, and I don’t know the answer. I do know I’ve heard that people with genius IQs are very susceptible to suggestion, contrary to what you might normally think.

They don’t filter out everything because they are constantly looking for connections. Connections are what lead to discoveries and sometimes they have to make far our connections in order to make radical discoveries that change our way of thinking.

I do buy into the link between genius and madness however. I watched the movie “A Beautiful Mind” about the mathematician John Nash, who was brilliant but later developed latent inhibition schizophrenia. He went off the deep end.

Do all geniuses have to end this way? I don’t think so. I think if you have some unresolved personal issues however you wind up in psychosis rather than keeping your frame of mind.

By everetra — On Dec 21, 2011

@miriam98 - Does it follow that people we classify as having ADD or ADHD are just suffering from this low latent inhibition test of concentration? If it is then these people should be held in high esteem, not given drugs to treat their perceived illness.

It’s strange, really. In our society there is a certain way that you must conduct yourselves to be accepted. The people who fall outside this norm are considered sick – yet as the article says, some of them wind up being geniuses.

What would happen if the whole world were full of such geniuses – if brilliance were the norm rather than the exception? Would we all be inept, socially, or would it redefine what it means to be normal?

By miriam98 — On Dec 20, 2011

I think we all have some latent inhibition, just to varying degrees. For example, take learning new things. Some concepts just don’t click the first time around and so they get discarded.

Later something happens that dredges up that bit of information from your memory and makes sense out of it. How many times have you not understood things at first and later understood them? I’ve had many “aha” moments like that.

It happens especially when people are trying to teach me things aurally. I tend to be a visual learner so a lot of the aural learning goes in one ear and out the other.

However, later I may be working on the same task and I can see with my own eyes what’s going on. Then in my mind I hear the echo of what the teacher was trying to explain to me earlier but which I couldn’t quite grasp. That’s latent inhibition.

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