Nancy Sokol Green
Why Saying “Pay Attention” Makes No Sense
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.
How is attention affected when information is interesting and important—but we have not finished our lower brain development? It turns out . . . that's 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.
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.
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.
Our vestibular system gives us many automatic functions, such as keeping our balance, staying alert, having good muscle tone, and maintaining a stable visual field.
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 unstable, 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).
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. And best of all, that shift in thinking greatly increases the chances that everyone stays in connection mode.