Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Use Sunscreen, and Use Your Brains

Graduates, parents, distinguished faculty and guests ... but especially graduates, because a graduation should be all about you.

The traditional ritual of a commencement speech is to give graduates advice: how to live your lives, what sort of people you should be, how you can build a better America, and so on. Of course, this is the height of presumption, since you have only just met me, and have no reason to conclude that my judgment would be any better than the judgments of your parents, your roommates, your Facebook friends, or some random person off the street. But a graduation is a ritual, and we anthropologists understand ritual, so I’m going to do it anyway.

So what can I tell you in five minutes? I did what anyone would do: I went to my Facebook friends.

My status earlier this week was “Trying to think of something sensible to say to the graduates of Mizzou later this week.” Suggestions from my friends included, “Throwing in a few appropriate Sartre quotes is a good way to grab a young, upand- coming crowd.”

Well, okay, young, up-and-coming crowd, how about:

All human actions are equivalent ... and ... all are on principle doomed to failure.

Well, that’s sure a cheery thought on your graduation day, as you go forth to begin your new lives.

Another suggestion, however, was more useful. “Wear sunscreen.”

This, of course, is from perhaps the most famous commencement address. If you Google “Vonnegut” and “wear sunscreen,” you will see over 20 000 hits. On YouTube alone, there are well over 1000 video versions and satires, including versions in English, Arabic, Portuguese, Swedish, German, and probably many other languages I missed. One features Yoda from Star Wars.

But this most famous commencement address was never given, and wasn’t even written by Kurt Vonnegut. The author Vonnegut’s name somehow got attached to a fantasy commencement speech written by Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich, which took on a life of its own. In addition to the admonition to wear sunscreen, the essay had lots of other good advice, like:

Do one thing every day that scares you.

And highly relevant for today:

Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for good.

And similarly:

Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

So, “wear sunscreen” is good advice — go read the essay sometime.

Another of my Facebook friends had a suggestion that really resonated with me: Trust your brain. Now you’re talking.

As you heard, I’m a scientist, and I believe strongly that reason, facts, and empirical evidence are essential for making not just scientific decisions, but other decisions as well. How can I encourage you to trust your brain? Well, as I was writing this talk, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle by a reporter who attended a psychic fair. He wrote:

A whole wonderful building full of miracles. Major credit cards accepted.

The reporter went on to describe these miracles, to wit:

It could be a magic bracelet (results not guaranteed), or a magic stick (your results may vary), or a magic meditation magnet (no refunds).

And indeed, there were people attending the fair who seemed not to be using their brains very much. One purveyor would, for $100, converse with a customer’s dead relatives. As the reporter commented, “her conversation seemed to be a trifle one-sided.”

Trust your brain. It’s useful not just for surviving four years of university, but for deciding lots of things that are important. Like what brand of sunscreen to select, or what policies our elected representatives should follow, or whose fault the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is, as well as whether to believe someone can channel your dead relatives.

Trust your brain. Ask questions when people make claims that sound fishy to you — and perhaps even more importantly, when you agree with them.

Use sunscreen, and use your brains.

Granted, there are times when maybe your brain isn’t the most important part of you. I recently read an analysis of love that explained:

sight, smells, [and] touch [stimulate] the thalamus, which in turn stimulates ... increased heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing and flushed skin .... [T]he ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens — both rich in dopamine receptors — become quite active ... A network of mutual interactions among the amygdala, the insula, and various parts of the prefrontal cortex integrates bodily perceptions and cognitive appraisal.

Okay. Knowing the neurological wiring that accompanies making love is very interesting, but I’m not sure that it really improves on the experience itself. So use your brains, but use your heart, too. You’ll be a better functioning organism if you use both. The real trick in this world of ours is realizing that there are times when you need to set aside your gut and your heart and trust your brain — because it’s going to give you a better answer.

And that is my presumptuous advice to you on this most happy day of your graduation, which I am highly honored to share.

Congratulations — and the best of luck to you!

[Delivered as the commencement address to the graduating class at the University of Missouri, Columbia, on May 15, 2010.]

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.