Kurtz Delivers “Senior Voices” Baccalaureate Address

Matthew Kurtz, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, presented the “Senior Voices” baccalaureate address on May 26.

I want to start by thanking the class of 2012 for inviting me to speak at this baccalaureate celebration and permitting me to be part of these festivities. I am so happy for all of you! It’s been an honor for me to see you all mature over the past 4 years, see you become more confident in your ideas and thinking, more poised and subtle in the expression of your ideas, and more skilled in interacting with those around you, and watching students used to relaying the ideas of others, become adept at formulating their own ideas
This has been a class of many success stories, stories of individual accomplishment but this is the case with just about all Wesleyan classes. What makes this class so remarkable, and perhaps to some extent unique in its history, are the number of new non-profit organizations targeted at helping those in need around the globe—this class has helped turn Wesleyan into a truly global university.

I. Accomplishments- The formation of the MINDS organization. Started by a devoted cadre of highly committed class of 2012 students Raghu Appasani, the organization is dedicated to both the identification of and intervention with people with severe mental illness in rural India—severe depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia and substance abuse. India is a country with 1.2 billion people but only 4,700 psychiatrists—contrast that with the US with 300 million people and 35,000 psychiatrists. In addition stigma runs deep, many people in rural communities with mental illness are shunned. The progress this organization is remarkable, with a full-time social worker already employed, a strong collaboration created between a local medical University, Sumandeep and the organization. And trips to Gujarati by a variety of Wesleyan undergraduates.

II. There is Shining Hope for Communities, started by members of the 2009 and 2012 classes Kennedy Odede, the organization is directed at combating gender inequality and extreme poverty in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, a slum notable for a population of 1.5 million people living on a landmass the size of Central Park, with a life expectancy of 30 years of age, relative to the life expectancy of 50 years in the rest of the country, Kibera School offering Kenya’s very first tuition free schooling to girls accessible social services, and is already serving over 100 girls grades K-3rd grade. The organization provides wrap-around services including food, school supplies and clothing, here in a place where less than 8 percent of the girls ever attend any school.

III. Brighter Dawns started by Tasmiha Khan is designed to prevent and treat health issues while improving overall living conditions in the slums of Bangladesh. She worked with the World Peace and Cultural foundation in Bangladesh to offer free diabetic screenings and seminars on hygiene and food preparation. Brighter Dawns has already completed its first project to provide safe and clean water for 1,000 households in ward 12 of Bangladesh.

IV. Possibilities of Pakistan lead by Ali Chaudri, who already spoke today and already won a Dell Webbie award extending free college counseling to Pakistan students planning on attending universities. The goal is to guide Pakistani students through the complicated application process and be accepted to foreign universities. The project includes free online guidance service and a magazine that details the ins and outs of applying to college. Truly impressive achievements.

As most of you know I am a professor of psychology and neuroscience. I’ve actually only been here a bit longer than most of you—5 years. As many of you also know I study psychological treatments in schizophrenia and the effect these treatments have on the brain—it is truly my life’s work and passion.

When people hear you are a psychologist they usually expect to hear some type of advice, so I would just hate to disappoint you all and feel like you didn’t get the price of admission. So I will offer four important “take-home” ideas for the class of 2012 to remember as you leave the shelter and support of the Wesleyan family and move into the wider world.

Contemporary psychological and neuroscientific research tell us that:
1. There are no reliable neuroanatomical differences between the brains of republicans and democrats—you can’t blame the bankrupt ideas of your political opponents on a shrunken frontal lobe, as tempting as that might be.

2. Money clearly doesn’t buy happiness. Multiple studies from a Nobel prize-winning psychologist Danny Kahneman at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school show that salary improves the overall sense of well-being up to 75K a year. The lower a person’s annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. Beyond 75K there is absolutely no relationship. So spending your life in search of the almighty dollar is unlikely to bring any type of true happiness.

3. in general, psychological research shows us that we are extremely lousy at evaluating how we felt in the past, and how we are likely to feel in the future. Our imaginations are extremely poor at judging how we will respond emotionally to specific event in the future. Psychological research has shown us that our biggest flaw is we are all “presentists” what we feel now we both project backwards into the past and forwards into the future—when college students hear a persuasive speech’s that produces a demonstrable change in their political opinions they tend to think they always felt the way they currently feel. When dating couples try to recall what they thought about their partners two months earlier they tend what to remember that they felt then what they feel now. When patients are asked about their headaches the amount of pain they are feeling at the moment determines how much pain they remember feeling the previous day—in other words, people misremember what they thought, feel and did in the past, as they think do and say now–likewise, with respect to the future. So the take-home message—be very careful about what you wish for, and maintain humility in the fact that most of us don’t know at all what it is truly going to make us feel happy, until we are, in fact, feeling happy—and I can tell you it does happen!.

4. Tibetan monks truly are happier. Studies investigating mindfulness-based meditation derived from Buddhist meditation show that after just four months of meditation training in American’s without any experience practicing meditation, levels of left hemisphere activation, associated with psychological resilience as measured by EEG triple. So remember to meditate!!!

I went to a liberal arts college like Wesleyan—not quite as elite, but with the same attention to the life of the mind and focus on lofty principles of discourse, the same healthy distrust of authority and the handed-down ways of approaching things, and the focus on creativity that is developed at Wesleyan. I was introduced there, for the first time, to the life of the mind, the intellect. For the first time I had professors take my ideas with great seriousness, encourage me to question my assumptions, to see intellectual questions from a variety of vantage points—it was truly electrifying. I remember coming home at my first Xmas break in college and telling my Mother there was no way we couldn’t be sure that all the objects in the entire world weren’t shrinking at the identically same rate, there would be no way for us to detect it (I’d heard this in some Intro Philosophy class I had taken and just couldn’t stop thinking about it—my Mother, I think, thought I was pretty nuts). I was good at school, and I was terribly afraid of the wide expanse outside of academia, my experiences of it limited to jobs working on the streets of New York City as a foot messenger, delivering packages in the film industry on the far West Side of Manhattan for peanuts. So I made the decision to continue in school and spend a life as a member of the professoriate.

As graduates of a truly elite university you are now all members of the elite yourselves. Compliment yourselves, but as a member of the elite comes responsibilities—important responsibilities and the world remains a highly inhospitable place for many.

1. Differences between rich and poor are larger than they have ever been. The world in general, and particularly outside of the US and Western Europe, continues to be a very, very hard place to live in and thrive. In fact the highest income countries (US, Australia, GB Germany and France among others) has 13 percent of the world population by 45 percent of the worlds income while the lowest group has 42 percent of the world’s population but only 9 percent of its wealth.

2. Disparities between rich and poor continue to grow in this country as the Occupy movements this year has made abundantly clear. In the US from 1979 to 2007 average household income for the nation’s top 1 percent more than tripled, while middle class incomes grew by less than 40 percent according to the congressional budget office.

Apply your talents, your skills in analytic inquiry, your ability to see things from multiple perspectives, and to understand the limitations of our knowledge, to make the world a more sustainable and place. I’ll leave you with the words of the distinguished Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi who died this year.

Tabucchi wrote fascinating, thoughtful and evocative stories that frequently disrupted linear relationships of time, and often described the presence of ghosts as quite normal aspects of daily landscapes. In an interview in 1999 Mr. Tabucchi was asked to describe the role of the intellectual and learned person in society—he noted that “doubts are like stains on a shirt, I like shirts with stains, because when I am given a shirt that’s too clean I immediately start having doubts. It’s the job of intellectuals and writers to cast doubt on perfection. Perfection spawns doctrines, dictators and totalitarian ideas”. So go out into the world and cast doubt, and offer bold, alternative realities.