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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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