How Inhibition May Be The Paradoxical Key to CreativityHow Inhibition May Be The Paradoxical Key to CreativityPhoto by Thomas Bjornstad on Unsplash

Inhibition: The Counterintuitive Key to Creativity

Research on intelligence and creativity inspires release of divergent thinking.

Grant H Brenner
5 min readJan 1, 2021

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

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…



Grant H Brenner

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer