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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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