Helpline 03455 211 300
General Enquiries 03455 211 811

Inhibition and switching

In this page …

What is 'inhibition and switching'?

Inhibition and switching, sometimes known as ‘set switching’ or ‘set shifting’, is the ability to move from one idea or behaviour to another. When a situation changes we need to be able to work out whether to change what we are doing to fit in with what is happening. That might mean we need to stop doing something and do something else instead.

Back to top

How is ‘inhibition and switching’ involved in behaviour?

‘Inhibition and switching’ means stopping, or ‘inhibiting’ a process or function that is not useful and switching to one that is. This means starting (initiating) a different set of processes that change the way a person behaves to match the situation.

For example, if a young person is involved in a class discussion then the teacher gives a new instruction; they need to be able to:

  • Disengage from the discussion.
  • Listen to what the teacher is saying.
  • Follow the new instruction.

Back to top

How can ‘inhibition and switching’ be changed by hydrocephalus?

Switching and inhibition operates from the ‘command centre’ in the brain’s frontal lobes. Damage to the frontal lobes or connections in the brain can make it difficult for executive functions to work the way they should. This can happen as a result of hydrocephalus (see About Hydrocephalus for more information).

A child or young person with hydrocephalus may often carry on, or get ‘stuck’, in a conversation topic or behaviour. Because of this, they may not be able to do what they need to do in a situation. In the example shown above, they may not be able to pay attention to the new instructions so they can’t do what the teacher asks.

Back to top

Key processes involved in inhibition and switching

The first step in stopping and switching is to notice that something has changed. We do this my monitoring to check that a plan is working and that our goals will be achieved. If the situation changes, it is possible that the plan of action will no longer be suitable: things might not work out the way we expect or want. We need to work out what we need to do differently.

Switching and inhibition involves stopping the behaviour that was happening then initiating a different plan of action. In many situations we need to be able to inhibit and switch quickly. This means that the brain needs to be able to complete all the required processing quickly.

Any of the processes involved in being able to adapt behaviour to fit a changing situation can be affected by hydrocephalus.

Back to top

Diagram of key processes involved in inhibition and switching

key processes in inhibition and switching

Back to top

Inhibiting errors

When we are working out how to respond to something, we will often have a lot of different ideas. Some are good and some are not so good. As we think of a solution ‘inhibition and switching’ gets involved so that our brain can inhibit any ideas that won’t work and switch to ones that will.

Someone with hydrocephalus may not be able to inhibit the impulse to act on their first idea. This means they can make mistakes in what they say and do. This might happen when we ask a question or give an instruction. For example, if we ask someone with hydrocephalus an open question like: ‘What do you want to do today?’ they may give a ‘silly’ or inappropriate answer because they can’t inhibit them. Sometimes they may not respond at all because they cannot decide or work out which answer would be the best one.

Back to top

Getting ‘stuck’ in the wrong behaviour

There can be different reasons for someone with hydrocephalus getting ‘stuck’ in an action that is no longer appropriate:

  • They may not have noticed that something has changed or that their responses/behaviour are no longer the right ones.
  • Even if they have, they may not be able to stop or ‘inhibit’ that action and work out what they should do instead.

All children can show unwillingness to stop doing something they enjoy e.g. their favourite computer game, but most can be persuaded eventually. Someone with hydrocephalus may appear to lack any understanding of why they should stop and may get very upset when they eventually do stop. Also, a young person with hydrocephalus may seem more upset than would be expected, and stay upset for longer than usual. When someone is upset, this can make it even more difficult for them to see why they need to stop and move on. This can also be the case when something is very exciting or enjoyable.

There are many things that can affect the brain’s processing including the ability to stop and switch between activities. Take a look at the introductory page for a reminder of ‘Other things that can affect how we think and behave’.

Back to top

Possible problems

A failure to inhibit and switch activity at the right time and in the right place may contribute difficulties in:

  • Moving from one task or activity to another (transitions) e.g. moving from playing a game to doing homework.
  • Seeming rigid or inflexible in behaviour e.g. unwillingness to try something new; at a different time; or do something differently.
  • Being quick to answer or do something but often mistaken in their response eg speaking to busy shop assistants; always switching lights off; shouting out answers in class.
  • Repeatedly making the same error and not showing that they recognise or can work out how to approach it differently eg in trying to solve a maths problem.
  • Repeating questions e.g. ‘When is Gran coming?’
  • Making decisions e.g. in answer to open questions; finding solutions to maths problems

Someone with hydrocephalus may need more time and support to help them understand when and why different behaviours are appropriate.

They may need:

  • To learn ways of stopping or ‘inhibiting’ more automatic responses.
  • Prompts to help them ‘put the brakes on’.
  • More help in understanding a situation and working out the best way to deal with it.

There may be situations that you learn to avoid. If they can’t be avoided, it may be that you just need to stay calm, accept the consequences and make sure that everyone is safe.

Take a look at the Living with Hydrocephalus section to find out more about how behaviour can be affected by hydrocephalus as well as hints and tips on ways of supporting your young person.

Every individual will be slightly different in the way their thoughts and actions are affected by hydrocephalus (and associated conditions). It is important to think about each individual’s pattern of strengths and difficulties. Patience, determination and trial and error are likely to be needed to find solutions that suit your child’s unique needs.

Back to top

Support us

Because of you we provide a lifetime commitment of information and support. Please continue to support us or donate today. Thank you.

Make a donation