Why Interrupting Isn’t Rude


Interrupting is often linked to a disorganized brain.

Interrupting actually makes sense when we understand what goes on in a person’s brain if he or she has incomplete lower brain development.

Namely, such people’s cortex is already preoccupied with seeking ways to compensate for automatic brain functions that we’d ordinarily acquire if that development were complete.  But it’s not, so such people end up with what we call a disorganized brain, where some parts aren’t doing their job while other parts are trying to pick up the slack.

With all that chaos going on, working memory is going to be impaired—which then specifically explains why someone with incomplete lower brain development may be prone to interrupting.

That’s because working memory is an active part of our memory system. It helps us keep information in mind while engaged in something else—and that requires a little memory juggling.  But recall, a person with incomplete lower brain development is already juggling a lot as a result of having a disorganized brain.

And whether or not a person realizes he or she has incomplete lower brain development (and therefore has less working memory “bandwidth”), he or she knows, via experience, thoughts are often lost if not shared immediately. That knowledge is then compounded by an on-going angst that’s also common among those with incomplete lower brain development.  In other words, not only do they know such thoughts will be gone, but they also start to feel anxious if they have to wait to speak.

So what’s the quickest way for such people to keep a thought and forego the angst? Interrupt!  Yet, that’s not really a great plan since such action ultimately ends up irritating and annoying others.

But instead of getting upset with people we view as chronic interrupters, maybe we alter what we do, rather than hope they’ll just suddenly change. With that mindset, here are some ideas.

  1. We don’t give speeches or tell long stories or give lengthy directions.  Instead, we say no more than a sentence or two, and then we pause.  In other words, we create openings for those who have difficulty keeping thoughts in working memory so they can now jump in without interrupting.
  1. We establish when someone can and cannot interrupt us. For example, when interacting with kids, we create a list (laced with humor) to underscore that only extreme emergencies warrant an interruption during specific times.  Such a list may be: You can interrupt me if your pants are on fire, if there is a boa constrictor in the room, or aliens are about to abduct you.  For everything else, you must wait.
  1. We might additionally help such kids by adding a visual or tactile cue that reminds them when they cannot interrupt. For example, we may wear an outrageous hat that signifies no one can approach us so long as we have that hat on. Something like that works well when teachers are interacting with a group of students in one part of the room and do not want to be interrupted by those working at their seat. Or, we can establish that someone only speaks if he or she is holding a special stone when people are offering ideas during a discussion.
  1. We teach people simple proprioceptive movements they might do while waiting to speak since such stimuli is calming (and, therefore, reduces any potential angst that may surface when waiting to speak). Such actions may include squeezing hands, crossing arms and pressing the hands on thighs, and interlacing fingers and pushing them down on top of the head.
  1. We can teach people to write (or draw a picture of) the thought they’re holding. That not only helps them remember what they wanted to say, but it also gives them something to do while waiting.

With the above in mind, here’s something to ponder. If the dictionary defines rude as “showing no respect or consideration,” maybe—just maybe—we’re the ones being rude if we don’t initiate simple actions that clearly help people with a disorganized brain.


How Apologies Reflect Brain Organization


Does your apology move the situation forward?

Everyone messes up.  But not everyone apologizes in the same way—or even apologizes at all.

Interestingly, we can glean information about a person’s brain organization by how he or she responds after making a mistake or doing something that adversely affects others.

So, what’s a cortex response to an error?

  • We immediately note whatever mistake we made or whatever problems we caused.
  • We take full responsibility, without shifting the focus elsewhere.
  • We don’t offer excuses, explanations, or rationalization for our behavior.
  • We acknowledge how our actions adversely affected others.
  • We write or verbalize an apology.
  • We ask what we may do to help rectify whatever problems we caused.
  • We share what we’ll do in the future so that we don’t repeat the same mistake.

How might that play out in daily life? Well, let’s suppose we’re 30 minutes late to a family dinner.

If we stay in our cortex and follow the above guidelines, we immediately address the fact that we were late (rather than breeze in as though we were on time and hope no one notices).

We do not mention that the sitter was late or there was unexpected traffic or any other reason that may have caused us to be late.  After all, none of those reasons ultimately change the fact that others still had to wait for us.

Instead, we dive right in with an acknowledgment that addresses how others were affected by our tardiness and then ask how we may rectify the situation.

Here, we might say something such as, “I totally understand how everyone must be feeling irritated that we’ve arrived so late, especially since the food now is probably getting cold. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused, and we do thank you for your patience. Is there something we can do—like heat up the food or something else—to help get dinner back on track?”

We also share what we’ll do differently in the future. “Just to let you know, we plan to allow ourselves a much bigger window for getting ready and arriving somewhere on time in the future.”

In contrast, here’s what we may do if we’re late for a family dinner, and we respond with our lower centers of the brain.

We never mention that we’re late, but then get defensive when another family member says something about it. (You try getting out the house on time with two small kids! It’s not like you’re always on time!)

We blame someone else. (You didn’t tell me the right time. You shouldn’t have made dinner so early. Sam’s teacher called just as we were walking out the door.)

We minimize being late. (It’s not that big of a deal. So the food is a little cold.  We’re not actually that late.)

We become a victim. (Everyone is always on my case. You have no idea how hard my life is. I get it– I’m the black sheep of the family.)

We actually never say we’re sorry, or we do so in a way that doesn’t sound sincere.

Or, we say we’re sorry without putting a period after that thought. For example, we say, “We’re sorry, but” (and then we finish the sentence with a justification). However, the second half of the sentence now negates the first part . . .  that included the actual apology.

And since we don’t see the bigger picture when we’re operating from the lower centers of the brain, we never ask how we may rectify whatever transpired as the result of our actions. In fact, we seem oblivious that we even inconvenienced others or that they will now have to pick up the slack.  It’s more of an “oh, well” kind of shrug and a “let’s drop it” sooner-than-later kind of attitude.

So what ultimately happens when we respond with our lower brain instead of our cortex? An already bad situation just gets worse.

But if cortex responses are actually more helpful, then why don’t we always respond that way? Well, that’s where our own brain organization comes into play.

If our lower centers of the brain are fully developed, we have a much greater chance of staying in our cortex and responding in kind.  On the other hand, if we have incomplete lower brain development, we’re more likely to go into a fight or flight mode as soon as we’re placed in an uncomfortable situation.

So the next time we’re apologizing, we can choose to pause and ask ourselves: Where is this apology coming from . . . my cortex or my lower centers of the brain? If we realize it’s the latter, we might just quit talking—right then and there—until we’re sure that we’re responding with our cortex.

And if we do that, everyone, including ourselves, will be very glad we did so.


Do You Know What Your Child Thinks?


We can’t assume to know what kids are thinking.

I recently came across a story that underscores how kids often see the world with very different eyes than adults.  Here’s the story.

A little girl was in desperate need of a blood donor, but there was none to be found. As a last resort, the doctors checked her 6-year-old brother—and he was a match!

So the parents and the doctor set the boy down and explained how he could help save his sister so that she wouldn’t die. He just needed to give her his blood.

However, the little boy asked if he could have some time to think about it.  His parents were surprised by the response, but they honored his request to ponder the decision.

The next day, the little boy informed everyone that he agreed to give his sister what she needed.

The hospital staff moved quickly. His sister’s rare blood disorder was at a critical stage, so they could not waste any time.

The medical team put the little boy in a bed next to his sister. As soon as the transfusion began, everyone was thrilled for the little girl.

But a few minutes later, the little boy turned to the doctor and in a quiet voice asked, “How long before I die?”

Yes, the little boy thought that if he gave his blood to his sister, she would live—but he would then die. That’s why he needed some time to think about his decision.

As parents or professionals who work with kids, what can we glean from this story?  Namely, we may need to probe a little in order to discover what kids are truly thinking. We can’t assume that our vantage of the world is the same as theirs.

In the above story, the parents or doctors could have responded as follows when the little boy did not immediately say he’d be a blood donor. “We absolutely respect your decision to give us an answer later, but we’re curious . . . why might you want more time?”

If they had asked that question, right then, everyone would have known that the little boy had misunderstood his role as a donor.

But it doesn’t have to be something as dramatic as the misunderstanding in that story.

At the Brain Highways Center, parents often share their concerns about a behavior specific to their child. For example, they may say that they’re worried that their son is antisocial since he always wanders from the guests at a party and then spends the rest of the time off by himself.

I then always ask, “What does your child say when you ask why he does that?”

To date, I don’t think I’ve ever had a parent respond to that specific question—no matter what concern they have just shared. Instead, they give me a blank look and then note that they have no idea.

In other words, the parents have never asked their child what he or she may be thinking or needing when doing a particular behavior.

Yet, when we do ask the child, more times than not, he or she has a very explicit reason for the behavior which then, more times than not, wipes away a lot of the parents’ initial concern about the situation.

Sometimes, we discover that the child isn’t even aware that he’s doing the behavior of concern or, if he is aware, he does not view it as problematic. Regardless of whatever information the child shares, the parents or professionals now have new insights on how to best move forward.

Note that this gentle probing is not the same as asking a question in a prosecutorial way, where the child thinks he’s being drilled.  Rather, this information-seeking approach is always done with a true sense of curiosity that has no judgment attached to the answer.

So, talk to kids.  Learn how they’re viewing the world.  Their answers may surprise you more than once.

Signs of Adults with Incomplete Lower Brain Development


Road rage may actually indicate incomplete lower brain development.

Kids aren’t the only ones who may be functioning with retained primitive reflexes, incomplete pons and midbrain development, and poor sensory processing. There are a lot of adults out there with such underdevelopment—yet most have no clue that they’re even compensating.

That’s because adults often compensate in more subtle and clever ways than kids.

For example, a child with an underdeveloped pons may do something overt—like crawl under a table or hide behind Mom—when he’s in the flight mode, whereas an adult may just quit the minute she’s feeling uncomfortable or rattle off a million excuses why she can’t do (whatever).  Yet, it’s very possible that adults who give up quickly and always have excuses for bailing are also doing “flight” behavior that’s reflective of an underdeveloped pons.

So, what might be other not-so-obvious examples of adult behaviors that could actually be signs of or compensations for incomplete lower brain development?

Road Rage

Road rage is an over-the-top, distorted reaction to a stranger’s way of driving, noting that distorted thinking is a common red flag for incomplete pons development.

For example, the extreme reactions associated with road rage suggest that whatever the stranger did was personal— that it was intentionally directed at the person experiencing the rage. However, in truth, the “offender” doesn’t even know any of the people in the cars around him.

Likewise, hostile reactions to drivers perceived as annoying or unsafe on the road are also distorted.  Not only are such reactions disproportionate to whatever happened (i.e. the person is not just mildly annoyed—he’s furious), but nothing positive is ever gained by such distorted responses.

Namely, the absent-minded, clueless driver does not then become a better driver after an aggressive exchange. Similarly, the driver who believes his safety was threatened by another driver’s poor decision actually only jeopardizes everyone else’s safety by responding antagonistically. In fact, road rage reactions increase the possibility that the recipient will now also respond in kind.

Distorted Hearing

If the lower centers of the brain are not fully developed, yes people hear words, but they don’t always process the actual message that was conveyed.  For example, a teacher may tell a parent that her child has not turned in three assignments. But the parent may incorrectly processes that communication as, “You said I’m a bad parent.” In such case, the parent now responds to the perceived accusation, rather than focusing on the missing assignments. Or, a husband may offer to pick up a salad for his wife, whereupon she responds, “I can’t believe you just called me fat!”

Note that it’s useless to correct these misinterpreted messages because these individuals will only become more defensive, insisting that what they heard was, in fact, what was said.


While it can be generally difficult to forgive, it’s especially challenging with an underdeveloped midbrain. That’s because a person with such underdevelopment gets “stuck” on a thought and then, consequently, is not able to let it go. So whatever the offender did that was deemed unforgivable just keeps playing over and over in the midbrain-stuck person’s mind.

Repeated Assurance

When the pons is underdeveloped, people often have distorted angst.  Not only do such people experience anxiety regularly, but the subject of their fear is also often something that makes the rest of the world goes, “Huh?”  In other words, such people are worried about something that most people have little or no concern about.

But if the pons remains underdeveloped, that anguish never goes away. So such adults need and ask for lots of assurance regarding their concerns.

Yet, such assurance is always fleeting—at best. Since the pons keeps triggering the distorted angst, the person keeps needing and asking for more assurance. This can happen even just a few minutes after the initial reassurance is given.


Some adults may use perfectionism as a cover for distorted angst, which (again) is reflective of an underdeveloped pons.  For example, suppose an adult likes to have rolls of toilet paper all lined up neatly in a row.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that preference. But what if someone now slightly moves one of those rolls out of the line? Does that perfectionist immediately experience some angst? Does she feel a strong need to put that roll of toilet paper right back in the line?


A person with an underdeveloped pons may experience anxiety as soon as she starts to think she won’t remember what she wants to say—so she cuts right into the conversation. That way, she won’t lose the thought.

Similarly, a person with an underdeveloped midbrain is prone to being impulsive, so she may just blurt out her thought, rather than wait for the other person to finish speaking.


Appearing to be inflexible and rigid to others may actually be more related to a fear of functioning without lower brain compensations in place.

For example, suppose someone is blind, and he has created his home in such a way that makes it very easy for him to get around. But what if someone now wants to re-arrange all the furniture? While that simple change may not affect others, it’s certainly going to make his life a whole lot more difficult. Not surprisingly, he may resist making those changes.

People may also appear to be unbending when they won’t consider replacing a prior way of doing something with a new approach—even when the latter actually serves them better. Here, an underdeveloped midbrain makes it difficult for such people to shift gears and move in a different direction.

Victim Mentality

When the lower centers of the brain are underdeveloped, people don’t always have access to the cortex—yet that’s where reflection occurs.

But without reflection, such people cannot consider how they may have also contributed to an undesirable situation. Instead, they quickly blame everyone else for whatever happened.

Such people also often believe they’ve been unjustly “wronged” when they expected others to do something to make their life easier (i.e. help them compensate in some way)—and that didn’t happen.  For example, they may have expected others to make an exception to an agreement (even though they signed the contract) or extend a deadline (after they missed it) or present information in a format that differs from what’s offered (since they’re having difficulty processing the materials).

But since these people have no awareness that such expectations are reflective of needing compensations to help their own brain profile, they often believe the person who does not comply then “hates” them or is “out to get them,” thereby escalating the distortion and victim mentality even more.


When the pons is underdeveloped, people often have limited peripheral vision. In such case, their world is literally that which is directly in front of them.  But this can also transfer to viewing life, in general, through a narrow lens—where people appear to act as though they’re the only ones who exist,

Tunnel-vision also happens if the midbrain is underdeveloped. Here, people experience difficulty in seeing the “bigger picture” whenever involved in or assessing a situation.  So, they’ll get distracted by lots of details— many of which are unimportant—as they expend a tremendous amount of energy spinning in directions that ultimately do nothing to move the current situation forward.

Excessive Questions

If the midbrain isn’t fully developed, people don’t often process speech at the rate it is spoken.  So, to slow down communications—especially in a lecture-type format—a person may ask questions throughout a presentation.  Doing so then temporarily stops the flow of information, while making that person look as though he is very interested in the topic (rather than someone who needs to compensate for incomplete lower brain development).

Of course, if that person views his on-going questioning as confirmation that he’s more savvy and tuned-in than the rest of the group, that’s also distorted. Such thinking infers that other people don’t have questions or want to know more. It also does not take into account that most people wait to see whether their question will be answered later in the presentation or after they’ve checked materials they’ve already received.

People with incomplete lower brain development may also repeat the same questions because they’re not always able to access information that has been previously stored. When they don’t remember what they’ve already learned, they have to ask the question again . . . and again . . . and again.

Out-of-Bounds Behavior

When people have poor proprioception, they don’t have an innate sense of spatial boundaries in relation to other people and objects. Interestingly, that lack of awareness sometimes transfers beyond physical boundaries. In such case, people may act in ways that are viewed as out-of-bounds by others. For example, they may share sensitive information that they should have kept private, or they create a scene in public. Yet, they do such actions without any awareness that they’ve even stepped over the line.

Of course, not every behavior screams incomplete lower brain development. But it’s amazing how often that which we attribute to being “personality traits” really do reflect such underdevelopment.

So, how can we know for sure? Well, the Brain Highways online adult screening provides a way to score whether someone may be functioning with a disorganized brain.

The Brain Highways online screening course explores this topic in even more depth.  The latter not only provides five different formats to assess many specific areas of lower brain development, but it also provides concrete ways how to then best interact with someone, for example, who has an underdeveloped pons or midbrain.

And what if we do discover that we’re compensating for incomplete lower brain development? Well, we can always go back and finish that development—at any age. That’s what makes learning whether we have a disorganized brain . . .  so worth our time.


How Procrastination is Misunderstood


Procrastination is often linked to feeling overwhelmed by a task.

Most of the world believes that procrastinators can “get the job done” if they just set their mind to do so.

But from a brain’s perspective, that’s not always true.

For example, when our midbrain is not fully developed, we experience difficulty seeing the bigger picture and details.  Yet, to start and complete a task or project, we need to be able to keep the bigger picture in mind while simultaneously adhering to the smaller details.

If we have a developed midbrain, we probably don’t realize how important such “wiring” helps us complete tasks.  Likewise, if we have an underdeveloped midbrain, we probably don’t realize that we’re even missing those important functions.

We do, however, know that every time we look at or think about what we’re supposed to do, we start to feel overwhelmed.  If we additionally have an underdeveloped pons—which is likely if we have an underdeveloped midbrain—we now also start to feel anxious about feeling so overwhelmed.

In such case, the angst triggers a flight response, so we get up and go do something else.  The brain is happy now because we’re now no longer feeling overwhelmed or anxious.

But when we ultimately come back to the task, it hasn’t changed—and neither has our brain.  So we, once again, repeat the overwhelmed, angst, flight cycle.  Of course, each time we repeat that pre-programmed brain response, the rest of the world views our actions as more procrastination.

If we have an underdeveloped pons, we may also have angst about what we’re being asked to do or where we need to be.  Here, we respond by delaying since we’re in no hurry to experience the projected upcoming discomfort.

For example, if a child experiences school as something that is painful, why would he be motivated to get ready for school without delay? In other words, the brain may register procrastinating as in its best interest.

So how might we help those with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain complete tasks without others viewing them as procrastinators?

First, we break down tasks, presenting just a small bit at a time.  Doing that greatly reduces the probability of feeling overwhelmed that then (recall) triggers angst and subsequent flight.

Simply, we short-circuit that unproductive cycle by extinguishing the first part. Namely, if the brain isn’t feeling overwhelmed, then there is no reason to feel anxious or flee.

This can be as simple as folding a math worksheet into fourths, where the child now only sees ¼ of the problems at a time. Or, we may ask our child to just put away his clothes, waiting to tell him to put away his toys.

We may even break down the task of putting away the clothes by first asking our child to pick up any clothes that need to be washed and put those in the hamper.  We would then follow that with asking our child to now fold clothes that need to go in a drawer, and so on.

For long term projects, we can generate a schedule that breaks down and prioritizes different tasks. Such a schedule would include specific times for completing each part (with wiggle room) so that the whole project is then completed on time.

If our child delays in order to avoid feeling angst or uncomfortable, we can discuss ways to improve those situations, too. For example, we may explore options that make it easier to focus in the classroom, which (if implemented) would then alleviate much of the dread associated with going to school.  With those ideas in place, the child no longer feels a need to delay getting ready in the morning.

We can also examine whether fear is motivating the procrastination. I have a friend who is a breast surgeon, and she’s often frustrated by how many women put off making an appointment once they’ve discovered a lump because they “didn’t want to hear it was cancer.”

Yet, postponing the appointment never reduced the probability the lump was cancer. In fact, it only made subsequent treatment more difficult since the cancer was now no longer at the early stages.

Of course, there’s a difference between those who procrastinate occasionally (e.g. delay doing taxes) and those who are viewed as chronic procrastinators.  Yet, both types share a misguided belief that postponing (fill in the blank) somehow makes the task different or easier when approached at a later date.  Not only is that not true, but more times than not—the delay causes additional problems.

So, in that sense, it’s good for all of us to pause whenever it appears we’re procrastinating. That gives us a chance to ponder what’s really going on in the brain . . .  so we can then know the best way to move forward.


Taking the Fear out of Vaccine Discussions


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


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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