Highly sensitive people: latent inhibition and creativity

One aspect of high sensitivity is increased sensory input. There are some intriguing research studies on how this works at the level of the brain and nervous system, and how it affects creative ability.

One study, for example, found that the brains of creative people appear to be more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment.

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(“Decreased Latent Inhibition Is Associated With Increased Creative Achievement in High-Functioning Individuals,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, September 2003 – see PDF)

Another article quotes one of the authors, Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychologist: “Scientists have wondered for a long time why madness and creativity seem linked, particularly in artists, musicians, and writers.

“Our research results indicate that low levels of latent inhibition and exceptional flexibility in thought predispose people to mental illness under some conditions and to creative accomplishments under others.”

[From Creativity tied to mental illness,  By William J. Cromie, Harvard University Gazette.]

A University of Toronto press release on the study explained, “Other people’s brains might shut out this same information through a process called ‘latent inhibition’ – defined as an animal’s unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs.

“Through psychological testing, the researchers showed that creative individuals are much more likely to have low levels of latent inhibition.

“This means that creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment,” says co-author and University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

From article Creative people more open to stimuli from environment.

The Eide Neurolearning Blog post titled The Biology of Creativity – Right Hemispheric Thinking, Problem Solving by Insight, and Diffuse Attention refers to studies on attentional style and creativity, including a Northwestern University study that references the above “Decreased Latent Inhibition…” paper and notes, “…psychometric measures of creativity and measures of real-world creative achievement are associated with a habitual tendency toward diffuse rather than focused attention, which results in ineffective filtering of distracting or irrelevant environmental stimuli.”

Elizabeth Mika (director of Gifted Resources in Northern Illinois) has commented that this study and other research in clinical psychology and psychiatry support psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s conclusions on the relationship between creativity and overexcitability (not called that in the studies). See her article Theory of Positive Disintegration as a Model of Personality Development For Exceptional Individuals.

Overwhelm and overload

TimesSquareBut overexcitability and the related phenomenon of decreased neural inhibition can result in overload and even disorder.

In his Psychology Today blog Beautiful Minds, in the post Schizophrenic Thought: Madness or Potential for Genius?, Scott Barry Kaufman comments on this dark side of high sensitivity:

“Throughout our daily lives we experience an influx of emotions, sensations, and sounds,” he writes. “If we had to consciously decide at all times what to ignore and what to pay attention to, we would quickly become overstimulated.

“This ability to screen things out of awareness that were previously tagged as irrelevant is called latent inhibition. Latent inhibition has a strong biological basis and operates automatically to filter out information.

The Doors of Perception book“Those high in latent inhibition are very good at this inhibition. Those with a reduced latent inhibition have a difficult time with this form of inhibition. Reduced latent inhibition has been associated with schizophrenia as well as a predisposition to psychosis.”


But, he adds, “Recently researchers have wondered whether a reduced latent inhibition can actually be beneficial for creativity.

“After all, decreased LI may make an individual more likely to see connections that others may not notice. Prominent psychologists such as Hans Eysenck and Colin Martindale have argued for the importance of disinhibition for creative thought.

“Indeed, research conducted by fellow PT blogger Shelley Carson and her colleagues have found among a sample of Harvard students that those with a high IQ and decreased LI tended to report increased creative achievement.”

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Top image is from post: Do Artists Have Unique Brains? – A BBC news story reports on research that concludes “Artists have structurally different brains compared with non-artists. Brain scans revealed that artists had increased neural matter in areas relating to fine motor movements and visual imagery.

Middle photo: ‘For some of us, even a little Times Square is too much’ – by  Nina Berman, from article Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, by Jeffrey Kluger, TIME, Nov. 17, 2002 – which refers to the book “Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World,” by Sharon Heller.

Also used in articles: ADD, Stress and Overstimulation – Living Too Close to Edge, By Susan Meindl, and Jenna Avery on dealing with overwhelm.

The lower image is from an edition of The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley.

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Related post: Genes and the startle response.

Related book by the authors of The Eide Neurolearning Blog: The Mislabeled Child: How Understanding Your Child’s Unique Learning Style Can Open the Door to Success, by Drs. Brock Eide and Fernette Eide.


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Originally posted 2009-03-15 21:35:43.


  1. It’s far more likely that low LI -low IQ individuals acquire mental disorders, because society, generally, fails appreciate their creative productions, but only judges competence and intellect on analytical type thought (or IQ). This of course, tends to lead to more and more stress on low LI – low IQ individuals; stress which leads to mental disorder. This is in contrast to HIGH IQ individuals, whom independent of low or high LI, are more advantaged through systematically standards.

    • Yes, they were real quick to make sure to exclude low IQ groups, as usual, in an effort to protect the deluded notion of intelligence among the masses. Yeah ,God forbid the brown hindu, have some type of intellectual advantage. Of course, it’s nonsense. Carson’s definition of creativity was limited to “LIFETIME Creativity” – it’s eludes the fact that schizoid types can actually have sustained periods of creativity, pre and post the onset of disease. Furthermore, there are many measures of creativity, and manifests differently, however, by no means should they rule out high level problem solving among the low-LI/low IQ group.

  2. Hello Everyone !!
    i feel Such !*HAPPINESS*! to know that you are all Here!

    i recently turned 46 so i have had a long life being
    ultra sensitive, and lived a life of empathy that was
    in a way very determental to my own well being,(trying to over love the mean people thinking that if only they had love they would change and become Nice or Good :) … ah the innocence !

    And it really was a struggle for a while there (living in this world)
    until i learned my coping skills
    and i am intent on keeping Myself more safe these days, having My life, and helping with words, or pictures or art that i create
    with Energy more than Involvement in others lives these days, although i do associate, i keep it brief, deep and lasting.

    mostly because involvement means absorbing
    their vibrations,

    i am exceedingly receptive, compulsively creative, an analyser, problem solver and innovative with ideas.

    i did try so hard to “function” as a normal mundane person, to have acceptance, to feel that i too belong here,

    but it cant be hidden at all :)and once i realised that Others do not think like i do, and the flock do not accept me as normal nor even like them, i had to grow up and understand myself, and learn how to protect myself properly. I had to find my coping skills.

    and often-times i can be such a magnet and draw so many people to me that i get frightened ! ( cos i feel also envy and actual Hate from the fringes and background)

    So i ran away and i lived in a forest for 7 years ( The best!)

    and i thrived in Nature with the elements in isolation,

    it was my Heaven on Earth :)

    but i had to rejoin society again (family obligations)and that was so shocking and something i was unprepared for because i hadnt had that energy around me for ages, and bad energy about me had grown over those years that i wasnt around

    and a strip of my hair turned white

    and again i near gave up and gave in and near let go my life and my will to live

    and i analysed the heck out of all that :)

    and i put myself to school again to understand and be understood and now i am labeled as an artist

    which is a term i am far more comfortable with than witch or weird, or other unmentionable names :)

    i thought i must be bipolar for a while there too cos i get so effected by things and have no control

    Like recently, we visted the museum where all the names
    of the WW1 soldiers names are on the walls,

    and i didnt know what area of the building we were entering ( it was a tour) but as i entered the room i just started Sobbing!

    ( so embarrassing!)

    and i was really choked up and covered my mouth with my jersey cos i couldnt stop the tears and sobs coming out,

    and i have to live with these reactions all the time,
    needless to say, i avoid things like tv and movies and am petrified by anything scary!(include people!)

    I am a believer in Energy, and i think this way, if i am

    able to instantly percieve people and situations, as sensations, i am slso capable of directing some enery out there, the loving smile, the kind word, the soft touch of companionship.
    I also pray to Jesus every time i have to walk out of my door that he hold my hand so that i am not afraid

    but sometimes i am weak, especially when people are real mean,

    so now i pay attention to my intuition and inner sensations and i listen to my inner self 100% of the time

    and if that means that i dont go to work, or miss a trip out, or a dinner occassion, then thats what has to happen,

    and i might feel alittle gutted or disappointed,or even upset with myself,
    but when i hear the stories of what did happen, well, you can imagine :) i am real realived that i did listen to myself and follow my own course.

    it is an isolating life being HSP, but i love my own company :) and no-one really does understand, but it makes for Peace, a real and true Peace for my area in this World, that is felt by all,

    cos our heart IS that big :)

    i encourage you all to follow Peace first and keep Our Happiness a priority 1st, only in this way can we really be of benefit to the world as a whole, cos we have a power, a real power and only through our own safe Well-Being in this world protected by the hand of Jesus can we emit it in the LOVE

    dont go it alone, when he is here for us all xo

    Sending My Love to Everyone of You out there xoxox
    from Jaynice

  3. Hey ample??

    I myself am a HSP, I have recently discovered this. I myself am residing in cpt and I would so love to meet someone like myself!!!
    You have no idea how much that would mean to me omg, just to feel that sense of peace & happiness internally being around someone like myself…
    I almost came to a point of thinking I’m seriously abnormal & began hating these gifts (not knowing at the time) pleeeease let me know if its possible?? My email is jamieleepatrick@gmail.com or you can even add me on FB using my email. Would mean so much to me. And this goes out to all the others like me PLS :)

  4. Hey guys im a male 4rm s.a cape town…recently i figured out i have low latent inhibition i rememberd a part of prison break like 2weeks ago i am going 2 post sumthng nw and want ur 0pinions on it if u thnk i have it or not…since i was a child im now 19 lol bt anyway i was always interested in nature hw it w0rks and wat faverz wat i figured al0t of thngs out that helpd me in the long run as i am laying here nw im being iritated by the texture of my blanket on my f0ot i cn evn picture hw it l0oks in my head, i cn feel thngs i knw n0.1 reali duz i see thngs n0.1 duz i cnt hav a c0nv0 with any1 0nli if they r ab0wt 30 yearz 0ldr than me 4them 2undrstand me…my brain is c0nstantly w0rkn analizing every small piece of detail frm niting 2 a trail of ants 4rm the grains of sugar lft on the table i hav a desire 2fix everythng thats br0ken and i knw 4 a fact i can fix al0t lol but i m0stly s0lve thngs in my head al0t of thngs ,thngs that r irelivant,i als0 always like 2hlp ppl wu need it…thanx opinions plz

  5. That last post was directed toward “Guy”.

    Natalie, my only suggestion is to put it to work. For me I make a good living trouble shooting computer networks around the world. I wouldn’t trade this brain for any other… It just took a while to figure out how to get it to do what I needed it to and now for the most part it does. I still get social anxiety in a lot of situations, but technology has no feelings and either works or doesn’t for logical reasons… It’s far easier to deal with.

    Honestly, when I deal with people, often times I already have determined how smart they are.. what their motives are.. whether I like them or not. I guess in other words they become objects that I have to deal with, and I find their simplicity uninteresting and disappointing.

    You just have to get comfortable in your own skin. Say what you want to say and do what you want to do. Hopefully you already do something you like for a living or you will drive yourself crazy or at a minimum you’ll feel like you’re wasting your time/life.

    I hope you take comfort in me saying, I know how you feel… because I do.

  6. No the fact of the matter is, people who have it don’t know why everyone else is different or why they (the others) don’t see things the same.

    Sometimes people live with this condition and never knew there was a name for it… and then they find a website or watch prison break and see or hear about it.

    If someone has a genius IQ and is aware of everything around them… I think they can figure it out. It’s not like they are retarded or in some other reality.

  7. @krentz: It’s nearly impossible to share that experience with someone who doesn’t understand, which is probably one reason why people pay so much for art. The woods used to be my sanctuary away from the world of noise, activity and incessant drama. Now that I’m living in a large city, I feel constantly hounded, and everyone thinks that my behavior is irrational. To me, discomfort is the day when the noise and movement and demand of people around me for my attention for this and that never ceases.

    @Nini: I had similar hardship in my life, and overcame it against all odds. The IQ test always seemed mundane to me, to say the least, and I still don’t quite understand why people are surprised about my score. Isn’t it odd that so many people in this world rely on the results of multiple-choice tests to tell them who and what they are?

    @Guy: It has been difficult for me to realize that I am different from others because I was taught that everyone thinks the same way. Over time, I came to the conclusion that there is absolutely no way that the people around me could be dealing with what I do on a daily basis and still be able to function in quite the same manner. Although it is hard for people with LLI to accept, I think there is a point when you have to face the fact that you’re different.

  8. I thought one of the symptoms of low latent inhibition was that you didn’t know you had it and you can’t see yourself differently from anyone else. Fact is, if you do indeed have this personality trait then you wouldn’t know and you wouldn’t believe that you had it if you were told?

    • Emma,
      what you’re saying is right… I have considered what it would be like to be a therapist, because I do empathize so much. Could you image the energy sucked from one who feels so much for someone else? I would literally be living their pain..either that or lose the blessing/curse which IS empathy by shutting it out. It may be why there aren’t more empathetic people in that profession. While yes it may be satisfying to help someone relieve negative energy, empathetic and HSP suck that up like a sponge. It physically exhausts and depresses.

  9. The first time I ever took an IQ test, I truly did not know what I was looking at. I was in high school and although it said I was well above average, my only thought was to complete the assignment for my teacher. I turned it in not caring enough to understand it fully, and the teacher never explained what my score actually meant. I’m explaining this because I recently took quite a few IQ tests, with the scores averaging around 152 and higher, but it was my reasoning behind taking the tests that is more interesting…You see I was a child of domestic violence, I believe the only reason I survived the situation was because I was intelligent enough to recognize it and evolve from it. However, due to my predisposition for mental illness given my background, when I began to “break” it was automatically assumed just that…mental illness…myself included. I tried taking medications for depression, different types of psychotics, sleeping pills, mood regulators-it was ridiculous and I don’t even like to take medications, trying very hard to deal with the “episodes” myself. It is funny though because after I took the IQ tests, (the first was for fun-the following were because I was amazed by the first) I began looking up mental illness and high IQ scores and most do not have strong correlations (mind you I’ve done a lot of research on bipolar and schizophrenia disorders and even though I have some of those symptoms, to many do not even remotely sound like what I live with)…with the exception of latent inhibition and highly sensitive people. After reading countless articles my perception has changed remarkably, you see I have also been a dancer (ballet-stop thinking dirty) since I was three winning almost every competition I was ever in, including states and nationals. I also can pick up any instrument and teach myself to play just by watching someone else play, pick up a pen and duplicate any picture in front of me, sing (but only to myself…not sure why), and one of my other favorites is my poetry-my ability to put down exactly what I mean and how I feel during the moment it’s written. With that said, I also cannot filter out anything, I am highly aware of everything around me at all times in my environment, and when it comes to people this includes all non-verbals and the meanings to everything verbal. I do not hear voices and I don’t see things that aren’t there, but I am truly oversensitive, wanting to help and please others with no expectations in return except kindness. Of course if that doesn’t happen it’s truly the most painful thing in the world, not to mention if I lose someone (move away, die, etc.) I also cannot control my anger, depression, or have the ability to let things go (I dwell on things that happen years ago, it can be the abuse or things I have no control over, things I think I will get in trouble for or fight over; causing anxiety and sleeplessness) which I always assumed inherited, in fact most of its assumed inherited, or a trait from being abused for more than 1/2 my life. I cannot say what I am dealing with, but I’ve seen countless psychologists and psychiatrists with little to no success except more medication recommendations (mind you not one of these individuals ever did any IQ or intelligence tests of any kind). I like the woman I’ve been seeing for a while, she doesn’t go directly to meds, but I think even she isn’t sure what to do with my situation other than to medicate now. I don’t know anyone in my area that can define my underlying condition, and since this was the closest thing I could find to what sounds like a plausible start to a solution, I thought I’d reach out…expecting nothing, hoping for anything useful.

    • Nini,

      Your comment is over a year old, but if you are reading this still, the thing that jumps out at me right away is you need serious empathy, or compassion, in a therapist. Someone who doesn’t just PRETEND to listen, understand, and care (I can tell when I’m being patronized, and you probably can too) but who actually DOES listen, understand and care.

      You’d think that therapists should be able to do that, that it would be a basic prerequisite even, but sadly there are many that do not.

  10. This latent inhibition business is quite interesting for me. I am an INFP under the Meyers-Briggs and also an HSP.

    There are a number of articles out there saying that the condition of Low Latent Inhibition is not desirable, it is attributed to higher levels of mental illness, it causes discomfort, etc. I have come to determine that my LI levels are not quite as low as they are implied by this description, but that they must be far lower than the average person.

    I’ve just been out walking in nature with another person and I can only surmise they can’t quite imagine what a beautiful catharsis it was for me. Just being out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by life itself – the grass giving way under one’s feet, the myriad insects scrambling to feed, the sounds of bird and wildlife reverberating across the plains… christ, even the lake seemed alive, with its velvety smooth surface interacting with the ducks floating across it in an almost playful manner, the breeze caressing my skin as I watched, I don’t know.

    I can’t imagine that my LI is low enough to cause me discomfort (though overly fidgety and loud people annoy me a lot), but -something- triggers a certain creative way of thinking in me, which is beautiful and inspiring, but also frustrating as I couldn’t possibly share the experience with anyone who doesn’t understand.

  11. This explains a lot for me. But I have no special talent for art or music. I have a knack for problem-solving quickly. I am super sensitve to smells and touch.

    I enjoined reading the article.

  12. As an HSP, I identify with having decreased LI. And I imagine most HSPs would. Even when we would very much like to filter out excess stimuli from our environments, our nervous systems keep feeding us the data and sensory inputs… regardless if we feel quite full. So, it seems since we don’t have access to *inner* LI, we place special emphasis on *outer* LI — we create sanctuaries for ourselves… quiet spaces… regenerative nooks where we can give our neurons a much needed break.

    This was a very thought-provoking article. Thank you for it, and all of the treasures here.

    Erika Harris

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