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Taking the Fear out of Vaccine Discussions

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Reproaching parents who do not vaccinate their children has not proven to change their minds.

I’m concerned that pons-triggered-fear-responses are dominating the topic of vaccines.

What do I mean? Well, as the media continues to present stories on parents who choose not to vaccinate their children, we read very emotional letters to the editor and online comments that admonish such parents as being anything from selfish to criminals who should be prosecuted.

Yet, there are facts—not opinions—that are usually omitted whenever this topic resurfaces in the news.  However, such facts can’t be omitted if we’re to have cortex-based discussions on vaccines.

To note: This post is not intended to support one view or another on vaccines. Instead, it’s to help ensure that our limbic system (our emotional part of the brain) is not deciding what is best for our kids.

So, what are some facts that contradict those emotional accusations (since those are not as well publicized)?

The most concerning misinformation is that unvaccinated people put vaccinated people at risk.  But think about that claim.

If vaccinations absolutely prevented disease, then only those who didn’t get vaccinated would be at risk, right? And if so, wouldn’t there be some kind of poetic justice for those “free riders” who refused to cooperate? In other words, just the unvaccinated would become ill.

But that’s not what happens. You can still get a disease, even if you’ve been vaccinated for it. That’s the truth.

So, with that mindset, everyone becomes a potential threat to passing on a disease—if we’re choosing to view people as threatening others’ health and safety whenever they venture out in public.

The media also seems to focus on just one primary reason why parents are opting not to vaccinate their kids, citing that such parents think there’s a link between vaccines and autism. But that infers before autism became primetime in the news, no one had concerns about vaccines. Yet, that’s not true, either.

For example, no one ever suggested a connection between vaccines and autism when my girls were babies. Still, my doctor informed me of potential risks associated with the various recommended shots at our routine two-month visit. In fact, I was definitely told pertussis reactions could even cause permanent brain damage, but I was also assured that such risk was minimal.

However, statistics when it’s one in (fill in a big number) take on a different meaning when you’re the “one” in that equation. My second daughter had that rare—but extremely frightening—reaction to the pertussis vaccine.

I’m talking the kind of reaction where you take a healthy, happy baby to the doctor, and an hour later, she’s having convulsions. I’m talking about the kind of reaction where the doctor is calling you every hour—even though there’s nothing she can really do at that point. I’m talking about one of the longest nights in my life, feeling helpless, just praying the reaction would finally end, that my daughter would be fine.

And she was. But her doctor back then—who was one of the biggest proponents of vaccines–definitely made sure it was written all over my daughter’s medical charts: NO PERTUSSIS VACCINE–ever.

So, in our current discussion on vaccines, we do need to remember that there have always been risks associated with them—long before a potential autism link was ever even suggested.

Those who opt not to vaccinate today are also accused of having a distorted fear of big pharmaceutical companies.  Yet, here again, there are facts to consider when making our own conclusions.

First, no doctor or pharmaceutical company can be held liable for any adverse reaction to a vaccine. Call me crazy, but to me, vaccine safety would be a lot more convincing if those fervently advocating and manufacturing vaccinations were also held liable for adverse reactions.

Second, doctors can and do work for pharmaceutical companies—though this association is rarely made public when such doctors are quoted on vaccine safety. Third, vaccines are a 22 billion dollar industry.

While none of these facts negate vaccines as beneficial, they do at least warrant a pause—and pausing is always a good sign of being in the cortex.

But with a cortex-based discussion on vaccines, we equally need to keep alive why vaccines were created in the first place.  For example, most of today’s younger generation of parents has not had any first-hand experience with these diseases.

So we need to remember how horrific these diseases are and the implications if they ever again became epidemic. To omit that information is just as negligent as glossing over the other facts noted so far.

Cortex-based discussions also always explore options.  For example, today’s kids are recommended to have 69+ doses of 16 different vaccines by the time they are 18.

So, what if some parents choose to vaccinate their kids, but opt not to do all of them? Consider, too, that 145 additional vaccines are currently being developed in clinical trials. That means it’s possible that even today’s parents who follow the recommended 16 may decide to reduce the total number of vaccines for their child if that number continues to rise in the future.

Or, some parents may simply prefer to follow a vaccine schedule of another country, noting that there is not universal agreement among conventional medicine as to when such shots are given.

But it’s those kinds of perspectives, combined with factual information on vaccines, that provide great fodder for lively, cortex-based discussions.  Yet, if we allow fear to dominate our responses—whether it’s related to vaccines themselves or what might happen if not everyone is vaccinated—then no one is a winner, least of all our kids.

So, we can agree and disagree on vaccines. And if we stay in our cortex, we don’t feel threatened if others arrive at a conclusion that differs from our own.

Why Saying “Pay Attention” Makes No Sense

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When basic brain processing functions are not in place, it’s not always a choice to stay focused.

I’m not sure who coined the expression, “pay attention,” but that person obviously did not understand how the brain works.

First, the idea of paying attention is odd in that it infers the person receiving the information then owes something to the person who’s speaking or to the author of something being read.

But, what if those people are utterly boring? It happens, right?

In such case, why are the rest of us still obligated to forfeit our attention when the originator of such information is clearly dull? After all, even a highly well-organized brain resists paying attention to something that’s of no interest.

But then, how is attention affected when information is interesting and important—yet we have a disorganized brain? It turns out . . . this is a very significant variable.

Here are just a few examples of basic brain skills we may take for granted (if we have them) and how they may affect attention if we do not.

Primitive Reflexes
In natural brain organization, primitive reflexes are supposed to be integrated (most within the first year of life) so that voluntary movement and control are then possible.

However, when primitive reflexes are retained, we have to expend a lot of cortical activity trying to override them—which then distracts us from the task at hand.

Some retained primitive reflexes specifically trigger misconceptions about attention. For example, a retained Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) often makes it difficult to cross the midline to retrieve information that was stored in one hemisphere of the brain. In such case, we act as though we have no idea what someone has previously told us—that is, until we finally cross over to that side (which can be a few minutes or even hours later).

Or, when primitive reflexes are not integrated, we may not have acquired enough stability, especially around the midline and trunk, needed to sit still. So we constantly “wiggle” in our seat, which is also often interpreted as not paying attention.

Lower Brain Development
When the pons and midbrain are fully developed, we acquire automatic basic brain functions. For example, a fully developed midbrain automatically prioritizes and filters extraneous sensations (e.g. relegates clothing tags, the hum of an air conditioner, etc. to the “background”), sending on only important information to the cortex. That then makes it easy to focus on the task at hand.

In contrast, when midbrain development is incomplete, the cortex becomes bombarded with too much sensory information. So now, it must first direct its attention to that flood of sensory information as it tries to sort out what’s important and what’s not.

In general, whenever pons and midbrain development are incomplete, the cortex is preoccupied with finding ways to compensate for those missing, automatic brain functions—sometimes with success, sometimes not. But in all cases, the cortex is no longer able to do it’s “own job” as efficiently as if it weren’t preoccupied with picking up the slack for incomplete lower brain development.

Body Awareness
When we have good body awareness, we have an internal body map that allows us to know where our body parts are and what they are doing—without ever having to look at them.

However, if we do not have innate body awareness, we become distracted from whatever we are doing as soon as we don’t naturally sense a body part. For example, if we don’t “feel” where our feet are, we’re going to be preoccupied with that (which is why we may start tapping our foot)—no matter how much we may want to stay focused on whatever we’re supposed to be doing. In short, the brain will always address survival needs over everything else.

Vestibular Processing
Our vestibular system gives us many automatic functions, such as keeping our balance, staying alert, having good muscle tone, and maintaining a stable visual filed.

However, poor vestibular processing interferes with much of what we do throughout the day, including our ability to stay focused. For example, poor vestibular processing may make it impossible to “sit still and pay attention.” That’s because rocking movements “wake up” a sluggish system, whereas sitting still often results in zoning out. Low muscle tone also makes it difficult to sit in chairs without slouching or slumping.

Our attention is additionally challenged if our visual field is instable, since words may now actually move around the page as we read and write.

Poor balance is also a distraction. For example, we may have to expend extra cortical activity just to ensure that we don’t fall off the chair, or we may need to even get up and truly move around (since it’s much easier to balance while moving than while being still).

Eye Teaming
Good eye teaming allows our eyes to converge and diverge and align to see just one object, even though each eye is in a different field of vision. We need our eyes to team whenever we do near-point tasks, including (but not limited to) reading and writing.

However, without good eye teaming, we may see distortions when we read and write, such as words may blur or lines of text shift together, which then makes it difficult to concentrate. Consequently, we may look up and even gaze out the window since such actions provide temporary relief from the distorted text (staring into the distance does not require eye teaming).

And yes, it’s entirely possible that what started out as a compensation for poor eye teaming (looking up and away from the work) ends up distracting us with something else ( we’re now interested in whatever is going on outside the window)—but our original inattentiveness started with the poor eye teaming.

Keep in mind that people may also be missing basic brain processing skills than what are noted here. Or, people can be missing two, three or more automatic brain functions all at the same time—after all, there’s nothing that says we only get “whammied” once.

So, when we realize that a person’s brain may not be functioning as intended, we truly begin to appreciate how attention is not always a choice—even though saying, “pay attention,” infers otherwise.

That’s why I actually avoid ever thinking or using that phrase. Instead, I ask myself: How can I best engage (whomever)? That’s a very different mindset than just expecting attention.

Rather, such thinking now shines the spotlight on me to figure out how to make it easy for others to receive and process what I want to share. It also challenges me to regularly apply what I know about the brain and attention.

So, here’s a crazy thought. What if everyone agrees to chuck the phrase “pay attention” and, instead, focuses on how to engage others when sharing information? With that mindset, how might school be different? How might home life be different? How many kids would be so very grateful?

Maybe it’s time to find out.

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