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2014 Convocation Keynote Address from Walter Greenleaf 75S

It is wonderful to be here for this exciting event – Hampshire College’s Convocation!

I want to mention right at the beginning of this talk that I have not come here to entertain you . . . nor have I come to attempt to motivate you by serving up a smorgasbord of platitudes.

As Hampshire students, Hampshire faculty, and Hampshire staff, you do not need much further motivation and inspiration – you are inherently self-propelled, and if and when you do run low on steam, and perhaps need to catch your breath and receive an extra push, you have the Hampshire community to help you maintain your momentum.

That’s pretty much my message to you today.

As a member of team Hampshire College, you are part of a unique supportive community of inspired, motivated and like-minded individuals. And that is a very powerful resource.

Your relationship with Hampshire College will serve as a foundation that will propel you forward for the rest of your life.

It is a simple concept, but the ramifications and downstream consequences are profound.

The Hampshire community is not just the people here with us today – the Hampshire community extends back in time almost 50 years. And consists of many thousands of individuals.

Entering students, you are now part of our team, our group, our community.

And unlike other academic institutions, being part of Hampshire means a lot to Hampshire alums. Hampshire alums remain active and engaged after they graduate, and help each other when given the chance.

They will help you, too, if given a chance.

As a student, your experiences here will be profound . . . but the relationship with the Hampshire community and the lessons learned here do not fade away after graduation – far from it.

That’s it – the heart of my message – the power of the Hampshire community, and how it will propel you through life.

Now, on with the rest of my talk – in which I discuss dancing naked on the bed, how to train your professors, and the neuroscience of procrastination.

As you know, I am a Hampshire alum, one who could be seen strolling around this campus about 40 years ago.

I must admit, it seems strange to combine the phrase “40 years ago” with Hampshire College. To me, the school still seems so very new and shiny – I suppose that is because the school is still evolving and pioneering new pathways. The fresh coat of paint helps too.

If you had seen me in 1974, you would have seen a guy with shoulder length hair, a full beard, wearing a green hooded sweatshirt, and rocking a woven Guatemalan belt that was holding up a pair of bell-bottom jeans. I spent a fair amount of time sitting on the wall over there near the library, and also hanging out in the science building.

Back in those early days, it was of course very exciting to be going to a new school that had just been formed – but also worrisome – when I started, the school had not yet been accredited. So all of us – students, faculty, and staff – were very aware that we were part of a grand experiment in education. Since then Hampshire has evolved and rounded out, becoming stronger and an even more exciting institution.

Now, since so many of those in the audience are entering students, I feel that I should tell you about one of my experiences during my first few days as a Hampshire student. It is somewhat embarrassing – profoundly embarrassing in fact, but I’m going to tell it to you nonetheless.

Back in 1974, when I was accepted, Hampshire was oversubscribed. A group of us were asked to “defer enrollment” until the start of the winter semester. I arrived in January, and was assigned a room in Merrill – Merrill A-101. Now, back in those early days, the school was not as organized as it is now. There was no social program set up to welcome us. We were handed a room key, a dining hall pass, and provided with information about enrolling in classes and a brief overview regarding Division I . . . but we were on our own to figure out the rest.

I remember trudging over to the dining hall and sitting by myself, looking around at all the other students who knew each other from the previous semester and previous years. I had yet to meet any of them.

I was too shy to introduce myself, so I ate my food and then I went back to Merrill A-101 and closed the door. I was lonely. To cheer myself up I put on an album (on my turntable) by the Rolling Stones. I cranked up the volume – I was wearing some very solid headphones, so as to not disturb my hall-mates.

My kind hall-mates, who I had not yet met, must have heard me – the new guy – moving around and singing to myself, so they decided to gather everyone from the hall together to welcome me. I was oblivious to everything else except the music, and had my back to the door. I don’t know what made me turn around, but there they were, almost all of them, standing in my doorway to greet me . . . You guessed it. I had been dancing naked on my bed, jumping up and down, and singing along to “Jumping Jack Flash.” They all clapped politely, and then slo-o-owly closed the door.

Well, it served to break the ice, and we all became good friends. What is my message here? Everyone: please seek out and introduce yourself to the new students – they may not be as fortunate as I was, to be caught dancing naked on their dorm-room bed.

Now, to return to my main point:

I can guarantee that when you graduate and push on from Hampshire, there is one lasting trait that you will bring with you: self-confidence, and the ability to challenge the status quo .

Note that I said ability, not interest. We all have an interest in changing the status quo. However, Hampshire teaches you the techniques of how to do this, and provides you with the energy, the momentum, and the self-confidence to do so.

Here are my personal examples:

When I graduated from college, I knew what I wanted to do next, which was to receive further training and to become a research scientist. I really had no idea of how to go about it. But I did know that I preferred warm weather, so I jumped in a car and drove cross-country to the San Francisco bay area, casting my fate to the wind.

I applied to three different graduate programs and, amazingly, I was accepted into them all –Stanford, Berkley, and UC Santa Cruz. Here is the reason why: Hampshire College had taught me to be self-confident. It showed when I interviewed, it showed in my Division III project, and it showed in the narrative evaluations that the Hampshire faculty had composed describing my work. I assure you that, had I simply showed up with a transcript of grades, I would have been turned down.

It was the self-confidence that I learned through my time at Hampshire that propelled me into the next career phase of my life. When you examine Hampshire’s success at placing graduates into follow-on programs, you will see that my story is representative of the trend. Hampshire teaches self-confidence.

My self-confidence was challenged and called into the forefront within my first week as a member of a research lab at Stanford. I was asked to help key into a database some data from a cross-sectional study on aging and hormones. The first publication based on this data was about to be published in a prestigious neuroscience journal, and I was helping with the second wave of analysis. Right away I noticed that something was wrong – that for some of the data our research group had used parametric statistical techniques to analyze non-parametric data, and thus had come to some erroneous conclusions.

I immediately met with Julian Davidson, the director of our laboratory, reported my findings, and suggested that they stop the presses on the publication of the findings from this extensive multi-year study. Julian was not amused. But to his credit, they retracted the article, and rewrote it using my suggested statistical methods.

Keep in mind that this was all within my first week of attending graduate school at Stanford. It took hutzpah and self-confidence to challenge the findings of the director of a Stanford research laboratory.

These are skills that I learned at Hampshire College and, as part of team Hampshire, these are skills that you will master, too.

I tell you this story as a way to underscore my key point: Hampshire College is a place to learn not just information and to refine skills. It is a place to learn self-confidence, and to learn how to adroitly challenge the conventional wisdom.

You can learn this at other schools, too, of course. But at Hampshire College you leave as a grand master in conventional wisdom challenging, whereas at other schools you leave with beginner skills only, if at all.

As you heard from my introduction, I am a neuroscientist.

As a general rule, scientists do not have material that is entertaining . . . but we do have material that is useful and informative, and I happen to have a few choice items to share with you that should prove helpful during your college years. And some of it can even be entertaining on its own.

For example, do you know that it is incredibly easy to train your professors? An understanding of the neuroscience of human behavior gives us the information that we need to learn how to do this.

The key is to leverage the power of social approval. The desire for approval is an incredible motivating force, and, surprisingly, college professors are not immune. By simply reinforcing certain professor-related behaviors with student-generated signs of approval, you can, within a short amount of time, have your teachers performing tricks.

Let me provide you with an example. Let us suppose that we want to train an Amherst physics professor to spend a preponderance of his or her time during lectures standing on the right side of the classroom rather than in the center or on the left. Let us further suppose that you also want to train said professor to speak up in a commanding tone, and perhaps pound on the whiteboard every now and then for emphasis.

Simply train the behavior that you want by providing positive feedback when you see it – when the professor is standing on the right, visibly perk up and pay attention. When they pound the podium for emphasis, sit up straight and smile. Perhaps make a positive gesture yourself by clapping or pounding on your desk too.

Work it out with your classmates in advance, don’t be too obvious, and I guarantee that you will soon have results. Sometimes you can get results within the course of a single lecture.

Now, be advised that this won’t work on Hampshire faculty. They already know that they have your approval, and thus are immune. But the faculty of the other schools are fair game. You can even practice on me if you like – I’m up here for another five minutes, so be sure to clap and smile a lot when I say or do something that you like.

Ok, what exactly is the point of this exercise in professor-training? It is not simply a parlor trick: The point is that we all influence each other’s behavior in many subtle ways. As humans, our brain is designed such that our behavior is strongly influenced by our social setting.

You should keep that fact in mind, since the implications are profound.

Essentially you can reprogram you own mood, behavior, and in general your life by making choices as to where you show up.

If you want to be in a better mood, hang out with people who are in a good mood and have a positive attitude. If you want to lose weight, don’t bother with diets (which don’t work in the long run) and choose to hang out with friends who eat healthy and are active.

If you want to get things done, choose to hangout with other goal-driven people.

And this is my point: If you want to change the world, hang out with other people who want to do the same thing. That is one more benefit derived from being part of the Hampshire community – we are all working hard to change the world.

This fall I am teaching a course at Stanford on the subject of the neuroscience of willpower and creativity.

The course also discusses the evil twin of willpower – procrastination.

I’d like to share some of the highlights with you. I assume that understanding the science behind procrastination may be of use to some of you.

This is a very smart crowd, and I can tell that you are all paying attention, so I figure that if I skip every third word I can cram most of the full course into two minutes. Here goes:

First of all: what is willpower?

Traditionally, willpower is viewed as a drive. For example, ambition and the drive to succeed.

However, when viewed from the vantage point of neuropsychology, willpower can be described as the ability to resist distracting impulses.

In my opinion, this is a very useful perspective. It suggests that a good way to address procrastination is not to focus on finding a way to cultivate more energy, but rather, to learn how to avoid distractions.

Unfortunately, due to our evolutionary heritage, our brain has many systems and reward pathways in place that facilitate impulsive behavior as part of the brain-systems necessary to insure survival and reproduction. These brain systems – focused on immediate needs – almost always work against our long-term goals.

Fortunately, the ability to resist distracting impulses can be cultivated and developed. Much like a muscle, willpower can be improved and strengthened by using focused attention to thoughts and behavior.

The key is leveraging three techniques: observation, repetition, and social context. 

The first technique is Observation. One way to cultivate the ability to resist distracting impulses is to pay attention to them. This can be accomplished by simply observing your own thinking and your own behavior. Pay attention to what is distracting you from your daily or longer-term goals. By paying attention to the impulses, it becomes easier to identifying them for what they are, and resist the cravings/urges and distractions that divert focused attention to a task.

The second technique is Repetition. You can avoid distractions by making goal-related tasks repetitive. Simply schedule a repeating and predictable task – such as exercise, or sitting down to write – at a regular time, so that the routine carries you past the distractions.

The third technique is to leverage social Context. The brains “mirror neuron system” and other social-reward systems allow us to be motivated and encouraged by the examples and the support of others. By making avoiding distractions and focusing on long-term goals part of your social life and dialog, you leverage the rewarding and reinforcing nature of friendship and camaraderie.

Talking with your friends and classmates about your goals and progress can reinforce willpower.

Participating in a group activity, a writing or exercise group for example, is even more reinforcing and will help you increase your willpower to take on difficult projects.

There is much more to say on the matter, but now you know the basics.

To summarize: I have proposed for your consideration today two concepts.

The first is the most important – you are part of a community – the Hampshire community. You are part of a unique community of inspired, motivated and like-minded individuals. Your relationship with Hampshire will serve as the foundation that will propel you forward for the rest of your life. From this home base you will derive the self-confidence and skills necessary to go out and make a difference in the world.

The second (and related) concept is this: As humans, our mood, attitudes, and behavior are strongly influenced by our social setting. With careful consideration, observation, and attention, you can leverage this knowledge to change your own behavior and attitudes, and that of those around you. This makes your active participation in the Hampshire community all the more important and valuable.

Thank you very much. It has been an honor to speak with you. This opportunity has been particularly poignant for me, because both of my sons – Walter and Garrison – are currently attending Hampshire, as first-year and third-year students. Their mother, Cecille, who is also a Hampshire alum, and I are excited and pleased that they have chosen Hampshire for their education.

By the way, there is one current Hampshire tradition that was not in place when I was a student here, and it is the ringing of the bell upon completing Div III. After I’m finished here, I’m going to avail myself to that tradition - one that I missed out on previously - and ring that bell!

When you hear the bell ringing next, you will know that I am celebrating my full membership in team Hampshire College.

Thank you.


Walter Greenleaf, Ph.D.
Distinguished Scholar, MediaX Program, Stanford University.
Chief Scientist, Pear Therapeutics
Executive Chairman, Psious Medical

Walter Greenleaf has a background in neuroscience research and medical product development. As a research scientist, Dr. Greenleaf focused on age-related changes in the human neuroendocrine system, and the effects of hormones on mood and behavior. He has also had a focus on aging and cognition, and recently served as the director for the Mind Division, Stanford Center on Longevity. Dr. Greenleaf is known internationally as an early pioneer in the medical application of virtual environment technology, and is viewed as one of the founders of the field.

As a medical product developer, he has focused on the use of simulation and telemedicine technology to treat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stroke, cognitive rehabilitation, addictions, autism, and other difficult problems in behavioral and physical medicine. He is currently developing several new medical products, all with an emphasis on combining digital health systems with interactive technologies.


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