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Bill Gates Harvard commencement speech (and his Frontal Lobes)

Bill Gates deliv­ered a very inspir­ing com­mence­ment speech in Har­vard last week. I rec­om­mend read­ing the full Remarks of Bill Gates and reflect­ing on his core mes­sage, which may be sum­ma­rized in its last sentence:

  • And I hope you will come back here to Har­vard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your tal­ent and your energy. I hope you will judge your­selves not on your pro­fes­sional accom­plish­ments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deep­est inequities  on how well you treated peo­ple a world away who have noth­ing in com­mon with you but their humanity.”

A note­wor­thy aspect of the speech was the dis­play of what neu­ropsy­chol­o­gists call Exec­u­tive Func­tions, which are mostly located in our Frontal Lobes–the most recent part of our brains in evo­lu­tion­ary terms, and that enable us to learn and adapt to new envi­ron­ments. What makes a “sharp brain”. You can read more about this in our post Exec­u­tive Func­tions and MacArthur “Genius Grants”.

See here Bill Gates’ advice on how to find solu­tions in com­plex environments-and how he applies a learned pat­tern to guide his actions in the field of AIDS prevention:

  • Cut­ting through com­plex­ity to find a solu­tion runs through four pre­dictable stages: deter­mine a goal, find the highest-leverage approach, dis­cover the ideal tech­nol­ogy for that approach, and in the mean­time, make the smartest appli­ca­tion of the tech­nol­ogy that you already have whether it’s some­thing sophis­ti­cated, like a drug, or some­thing sim­pler, like a bednet.”
  • The AIDS epi­demic offers an exam­ple. The broad goal, of course, is to end the dis­ease. The highest-leverage approach is pre­ven­tion. The ideal tech­nol­ogy would be a vac­cine that gives life­time immu­nity with a sin­gle dose. So gov­ern­ments, drug com­pa­nies, and foun­da­tions fund vac­cine research. But their work is likely to take more than a decade, so in the mean­time, we have to work with what we have in hand and the best pre­ven­tion approach we have now is get­ting peo­ple to avoid risky behavior.”
  • Pur­su­ing that goal starts the four-step cycle again. This is the pat­tern. The cru­cial thing is to never stop think­ing and work­ing  and never do what we did with malaria and tuber­cu­lo­sis in the 20th cen­tury  which is to sur­ren­der to com­plex­ity and quit.”
  • The final step  after see­ing the prob­lem and find­ing an approach  is to mea­sure the impact of your work and share your suc­cesses and fail­ures so that oth­ers learn from your efforts.”

Cer­tainly, good advice for us too to refine our Brain Fit­ness efforts. Here you have a rel­e­vant frag­ment of my (AF)recent inter­view with Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg (EG):

AF: Please tell us more about what the Frontal Lobes are

EG: We researchers typ­i­cally call them the Exec­u­tive Brain. The pre­frontal cor­tex is young by evo­lu­tion­ary terms, and is the brain area crit­i­cal to adapt to new sit­u­a­tions, plan for the future, and self-regulate our actions in order to achieve long-term objec­tives. We could say that that part of the brain, right behind our fore­head, acts as the con­duc­tor of an orches­tra, direct­ing and inte­grat­ing the work of other parts of the brain.

I pro­vide a good exam­ple in The Exec­u­tive Brain book, where I explain how I was able to orga­nize my escape from Rus­sia into the US.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, the path­ways that con­nect the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain are slow to mature, reach­ing full oper­a­tional state between ages 18 and 30, or maybe even later. And, given that they are not as hard-wired as other parts of the brain, they are typ­i­cally the first areas to decline.

Well, I’d say Mr. Gates has pretty mature and solid pathways!

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