A Hidden Brain Commencement Address

Commencement ceremonies allow us to take stock of what we’ve accomplished and where we’re headed. This is one of the key opportunities that students and families have lost, as social distancing precautions lead schools to cancel in-person graduations. In this “commencement address,” recorded at the request of the public radio program 1A, Shankar Vedantam offers thoughts on what it means to mark such a milestone at this moment, and how graduates can use the disruption caused by the pandemic to think about their lives in new ways.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.



Hey there. Shankar here. Last week, our friends at the public radio program 1A produced a discussion about rites of passage. As part of that episode, they asked me to deliver an on-air commencement address to graduates finishing their studies this year. We thought we'd bring you those remarks and offer our warm congratulations to all students, parents and caregivers who are marking this moment.


VEDANTAM: Greetings. To the class of 2020, to the faculty, parents, grandparents and friends joining us today - congratulations. It's a great honor to be with you in this most extraordinary of moments for this most unusual of commencement ceremonies. Now, extraordinary and unusual may not be the first words that come to mind. Perhaps the words you would choose are more colorful. Go ahead - shout those words out loud. It's OK to feel grief that your commencement isn't how you imagined it.

You've worked hard to get to this moment. You deserve to be wearing your cap and gown, to walk across the stage, shake hands with your deans and professors and collect your diploma. Your families deserve to bear witness to this moment, to know that all their years of hard work and sacrifice were worth it. Giving up this rite of passage is very hard, and it comes at a time when many others are going through much worse.

Some of you might be feeling guilty about being sad. You might be thinking of all the lives that have been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, to the millions of people out of work. And you might think, I really shouldn't be sad about losing out on a graduation ceremony. It's good that you're paying attention to all those out there who are hurting, but that shouldn't mean your pain doesn't count.

Suffering isn't a zero-sum game. Your pain doesn't go away because someone else's pain is greater. Your sadness about missing out on graduation ceremonies is very likely coupled with anxieties. Will you be able to find a job? If you find one, will it make you happy? Are you ever going to pay off your student loans?

As you think about these big, difficult questions, I'd like to tell you a story that shows why moments like this, moments of chaos and disruption, allow us to discover things about ourselves. The story I'd like to share is of a young woman named Maya Shankar. When Maya was a girl, her mother gave her a violin. She was captivated by the instrument, and she began playing constantly. Eventually, she was accepted to Juilliard, the renowned music school in New York City. She became a student of the great violinist Itzhak Perlman.

She was well on her way to becoming a professional musician. Everything was going exactly to plan. And then one day, as she was practicing, she overstretched a finger and felt a pop. She had injured a tendon. Months passed. Her hand never healed properly. And eventually, doctors told her she had to give up the violin. The grief that Maya felt was enormous. Her plan for her life, her very identity had been wrapped around music. She didn't know what to do next.

And then one day, as she was helping her parents clean out their basement, she stumbled on one of her sister's course books. It was "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker. And as she read the book, Maya found herself captivated by the human mind. She realized she wanted to learn more about the brain and how it works, and so she decided to study cognitive science. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Maya has since completed a Rhodes scholarship and a stint in the Obama White House.

I tell you Maya's story not to suggest it should be your story, but because it shows that when the world is uncertain and the ground under our feet feels unsteady, that's often the time we discover new things about ourselves. Periods of disruption invariably lead to invention and reinvention.

A number of years ago, there was a transit strike in London. Many subway stations were closed. People had to find a new way to get around. It was stressful. It was annoying. Once the strike was done, you might expect everyone quickly went back to their old commutes. But that didn't happen. When researchers looked at the data, they found that thousands of people stuck with new routines that they had invented during the strike. The chaos had helped many Londoners identify new and better ways of moving about the world.

You can see where I'm going with this. Like those London commuters, you are grappling with a change to the normal rhythms and routines of life. Like Maya Shankar, you have suddenly seen your plans upended. The way forward is unclear, but what lies before you is an opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes.

I'm often reminded of this when I travel to a new city. I'm peering around, looking with fascination at the buildings, the parks. Meanwhile, all around me, the people who actually live in that city are hurrying about, barely looking up, not stopping to notice the sights around them.

When chaos strikes, we all become tourists in our own lives. We start to see with fresh eyes, and when we do, we realize the world really does have endless possibilities. In fact, this is why we have rites of passage like graduation ceremonies. They are designed to give us a chance to stop, to take stock, to look back and say, look how far I've come, to look forward and ask, where do I want to go from here?

You might not get the ceremony, but you can take a moment to stop and do those things anyway. Celebrate your accomplishments and ask how you fit into a changed world. Congratulations and good luck.


VEDANTAM: This bonus episode was produced by Tara Boyle. If there's someone in your life who might enjoy it, please share it with them. If your friend is new to podcasting, please help them subscribe to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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