06/14/2014 12:34 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2014

The Best Unsung Commencement Speech Began With Silence

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It's nearly the end of the brief season when lofty celebrity speeches, later to resurface in thin books, are dispensed to seas of graduates. But often overlooked by the cameras and headlines are quiet words of commencement advice perhaps even more worth remembering. On a blue-sky day last month, I happened to be in the audience for one such talk.

Paul Hudak spoke at the close of three days of pomp and festivity to 125 or so Yale seniors, their families and friends. A noted computer scientist, he is the master, or live-in head, of one of Yale's dozen undergraduate residential colleges. Final exams were long past and diplomas in hand when Hudak began. "I'm a pretty simple man, as you probably know, and my message is very, very simple," he said. "Slow down." Then he paused so long that birds in the Gothic courtyard where we were assembled resumed their song and younger siblings squirmed. The silence, Hudak told us, was engineered to compel us to experience a morsel of seeming emptiness in acute contrast to our hyper-connected lives. For slowing and stopping aren't really "nothingness" at all, he went on to explain.

Slowing doesn't mean slacking off or settling for less, or not "giving it all you've got," he said. Instead, it is the gateway to fully paying attention and so to noticing the details and subtleties of what you're doing. "I encourage you to slow down," he said, "to be sure that you are not missing the potential depth of each of your many experiences." However we describe it -- "mindfulness," "letting go" or "smelling the roses" -- slowing involves the idea of being present in order to do something well. "It emphasizes the point that the only moment in life that really matters is the current one," said Hudak.

His words were conversational and philosophical, yet rooted in scientific discovery. Converging evidence suggests that conscious awareness -- fully perceiving something -- entails a relatively slow firing up of a key cortical network, according to work led by the neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene. Although we ceaselessly unconsciously and automatically perceive the world, true conscious awareness -- which can take nearly half a second to kick in -- ignites a unique state of intense cross-brain connectivity. In this mode, key brain regions align to combine and analyze information. The result, Dehaene and others theorize, is a "global workspace" perfectly suited for holding a thought or idea in mind and then building on it. Conscious awareness literally allows us to deliberate, as one of his recent studies shows.

In a simple but revealing series of experiments, people were shown a series of five arrows, some pointing left, others to the right, flashed briefly one at a time on a screen. At the end, participants were asked to judge the arrows' predominant direction. The catch: some arrows were barely perceptible, a condition that radically changed participants' decision-making, according to the study published in PLOS Biology. As highly visible arrows flashed by, viewers began weighting the evidence according to the mounting pattern. Shown four right arrows, and the last one hardly counted. But in the low visibility conditions, people were groping in the dark, unable to grasp the big-picture trends and ultimately relying on the last arrow as the basis of their final judgment. Awareness, in other words, sets the stage for a higher-order form of thinking, a chain of reasoning. Evidence accrues, much as when we choose an apartment with care or listen fully to the facts in a court case. Such thinking, of course, takes time, and a willingness to pay attention.

Nearly five years ago, just as Hudak took on the role of master, he received a diagnosis of leukemia. At that spring's commencement, he shared his own story of learning to slow, partly through practices of walking meditation and mindfulness. But this year, Hudak felt convinced that his students urgently needed to hear the message more explicitly. "We have yoga and stress reduction clinics, but I've run across students sometimes who to me seem like they're literally ready to break, ... they're so stressed," he later told me. When he suggests slowing or decompressing, they tell him that they don't have time. "They don't have time to fix the fact that they don't have time!" he said. "It's so sad to see that." This year, he spoke more vehemently, paused far longer and received more compliments on the speech than on any he'd ever given. Students found it inspiring. Some parents told him that they'd wept.

Humans are creatures of duality. We are fast and slow thinkers, explorers and exploiters of our environments, seekers of precision and yet fans of the roughhewn. Our foremost struggle perhaps is keeping one side of ourselves from triumphing over another. A culture built on one tempo of machine-honed speed imperils our capacity for nuance, depth and invention. In his speech, Hudak tipped his hat to the need to disconnect at times from the maelstrom that technology has become.

But in the end, the power of his message lay less with his gentle advice or inspiring pause. Hudak, the co-creator of a famous programming language, helped us that day begin to create a language for slowing down. He planted the idea that slow, a concept that we often mistake for deficiency, instead can be a source of strength. He showed us that a moment of stillness and seeming emptiness can be an awakening. His words echo a question posed in the late 1980s by the critic Langdon Winner as he wrestled with the implications of a technological world. "As we 'make things work,'" Winner asked, "what kind of world are we making?" To consider this question, we need to create new vocabularies of tempo and have the courage to take them to heart -- slowly.