New Focus, New Perspectives

Good morning. Class of 2024, transfer students, Eli Whitney students, and Visiting International Students, welcome to Yale!

I am Marvin Chun, dean of Yale College, and on behalf of the officers of the university, the faculty, the heads and deans of the residential colleges, and the deans and staff members of the Yale College Dean’s Office, I am so pleased to be with you today.

Family members and friends who are joining us, we extend our warm welcome to you, and we thank you for everything you have done in guiding these young adults.

In my role as dean, one of my jobs is to support President Salovey’s mission for Yale to be the research university most committed to teaching and learning. What that means for you students is that I am here to make sure that you get the best of what Yale has to offer, in the classroom or outside of it. A good part of what you will learn here will come from the faculty who will teach you in the classes you take, while much will come from your peers and colleagues. Taken together, these teachers of yours will give you the liberal education that is Yale's hallmark. By the time you graduate, you will have furnished your mind in the broadest possible sense, not by pursuing narrow, specialized study but instead by searching for new knowledge, new perspectives, new ways of looking at the world, and by adding your own. If you make good use of this place, you will discover fields of knowledge that are completely new to you, that you haven't even heard of, and you will open yourselves to them and learn from them.

You are joining Yale during a uniquely challenging year for the institution and for the world. The ongoing pandemic requires us to curtail in-person group gatherings, and so most of your classes and activities will be conducted online, starting with this Opening Assembly.

Still, we can be grateful that in year 2020, modern technology equips us to overcome this challenge better than ever. Online, we can stay connected, communicating our ideas, and sharing our passions. As a neuroscientist, I can assure you that to your brain, nestled inside of your head, sights and sounds from the world can be as vivid online as they would be live. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to understand that whether listening with headphones or from a person standing in front of you, the sound waves reaching your ears are similar; and that whether the face you’re seeing is on a screen or across a classroom, the images you are seeing are comparable. If not for our agility with media, which brings us the world every day, how could the music, film, and broadcasting industries be such a dominant form of entertainment in our daily lives? 

As you imagine the semester ahead, think about new ways you will interact with the faculty and other students, just as your instructors will be. Also keep in mind that the faculty-to-student ratio is the best in Yale's modern history, with more faculty teaching and mentoring fewer students: You are entering Yale when its diverse faculty is the largest it has ever been, and at a time when the number of enrolled students is around 80% its usual size. One of the unanticipated advantages of starting your Yale education now is the increased attention you will receive.

Still, with much of the semester now online, with fewer people around, you may be more easily distracted, and if you're like me you might be guilty of occasional mind wandering. In fact, my own desire to be more focused has led to a research interest in attention throughout my career. My lab group uses brain scanners to measure how attentive a person is, and we explore ways to improve concentration. So here, let me make good use of this online moment to help you be more attentive to the new ideas and opportunities that await you at Yale. I will now direct you to an on-screen demonstration of how you can focus better to make distractions disappear. 

"Visual exercise"

You see a background of flickering blue dots with three stationary and salient yellow dots. In the middle is a white plus sign, and I’ll ask you to just stare at that throughout this exercise. If you stay focused on the white plus symbol, without moving your eyes, you should notice that the yellow dots will start disappearing. It may take a few seconds for this to happen for you, especially if you’re, umm, distracted right now. The yellow dots will start disappearing one or two at a time, but for many of you, all three of them should disappear at some point. This is a perceptual illusion called motion-induced blindness, and at Yale, Psychology Professor Brian Scholl studies it. There are many explanations for why motion-induced blindness occurs, but for today’s purpose, just know that you can willfully make distractions disappear.

With your newfound powers of attention, you not only can reduce distraction, you can use it to help you see new perspectives and ways of understanding. You have all earned a place in this community because of the promise you have shown in what you will contribute to it – you have so much to learn from each other. When you get to know your colleagues joining Yale this year, you will discover that you come from every possible walk of life, bringing with you every imaginable talent, every experience, every worldview. Think about how to leverage your different backgrounds, views, talents, and interests, and by learning how to see the world through each other’s eyes.

It takes effort and attention to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and it will be worth it to empathize with others and to make more informed decisions. Okay, so now let's turn to another demonstration to use your mind and volition to see things differently.

"Visual exercise 2"

You should see two dots moving on the screen now. Do you see them moving vertically, up and down in columns? Or do you see them moving horizontally, oscillating between left and right in rows? Some of you will see them moving vertically, and others will see them moving horizontally. This simple demonstration shows a fundamental principle of psychology: we all experience the world differently. Our perceptual interpretations, our memories, and our thoughts, are all constructs of the mind, and they differ across people even when considering the same object, event, or evidence.

Now I will ask you to see the dot motions differently, using your mindset and attention. If you see them vertically, try to see them move along the horizontal axis. If you see them horizontally, try to see them move along the vertical axis It’s hard, but you can do it. If you can’t, be assured that we still want you at Yale. But since we don’t have time now, here’s a hint. Use your hand to cover up the bottom row, and this will help you see the dots move horizontally. Or use your hand to cover up the right column, and you will see the dots move vertically. Take your hand away and the motion should stick.

Here’s a last example of how you can view one image two different ways. 

Visual exercise 3

Name out loud what you see. Did you see a duck? Or did you see a rabbit? Can you see it both ways? Your hand won’t help here. The duck’s bill forms the rabbit’s ears. The rabbit’s nose is the back of the duck’s head.

Cartoon, two armies face each other in a standoff, both bearing banners of an image that can be interpreted as a rabbit or a duck depending on perspective

Now look at the cartoon on the screen. Two armies face each other, and for the army on the bottom, find the general at the front of it, urging his troops,

Cartoon, two armies face each other in a standoff, both bearing banners of an image that can be interpreted as a rabbit or a duck depending on perspective, text underneath reads "There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God."

“There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God.” How can we help everyone understand that they are serving the same flag?

Yale will expose you to views different from your own, and when it does, you can start by finding common ground with people when you don't agree with them. As Yalies, as our newest members of Bulldog Nation, you are all under one flag. With the sophomores, juniors, and seniors -- the alumni, faculty, and staff -- and with each other, you have common ground, an immediate shared bond that goes deep, to the intellectual curiosity and the commitment to community that have brought you all here.

You have just arrived at a place that values difference and actively seeks it out. It is how professors and students find and test knowledge, and it is how the university equips its students -- that's you -- to become leaders and citizens of the world. But here, the value of seeking difference is even more than that: here it is taken as an article of faith, it is the coin of the realm, it is one of the bedrock principles that governs us -- in and out of the classroom.

Let me assume that you have come here not only to find knowledge but also to learn how to live lives of consequence. If that is true, you have come to the right place. As you take your first steps, then, you will need to become comfortable with difference, not just to accept it or tolerate it but to insist on it. You will find guides everywhere, in the classes you will take, the activities you join, and most of all from the people joining you right now -- your peers and classmates. All of them are part of the liberal arts education that awaits you.

Your life at Yale has started, and as it does, here's what I hope you will do. If you are a duck person, go find those rabbit people, and find common ground with them. If you are studying all duck courses, go find the rabbit courses, and see what they can teach you. And when you find yourself rallying around a duck flag, take a good, hard look at that rabbit flag across the field and the people rallying around it, and remember that you are all Yalies.

Members of the Class of 2024, transfer students, Eli Whitney students, Visiting International Students, you belong to Yale, and Yale belongs to you. Welcome!