James S. Riepe University Professor, Professor of Marketing, Professor of Psychology, and Professor of Neuroscience Michael Platt is leading a multi-disciplinary foray into uncharted territories: how the brain works, how that influences business, and how that understanding can someday improve human life. As he continues to expand his research at Wharton, Michael emphasizes balancing optimism and caution in the face of rapid technological advancement.
A “bomb cyclone” of sub-freezing temperatures and 40-mile-per-hour winds is hitting Philadelphia in January, but Michael Platt GR94 walks into Huntsman Hall looking composed and comfortable in a black Patagonia coat, black turtleneck, ash black jeans and big brown boots. His beard and graying hair are trimmed tight, and his general demeanor is far more relaxed — chill, even — than that of anyone else pushing through the doors on Locust Walk and into the Sirius XM Wharton Business Radio studio.
Career Talk host and Executive MBA Director of Career Management Dawn Graham greets him: “I’m so happy to have you on-air.” While Platt considers himself to be — quite genuinely — no big deal, the enthusiasm surrounding his work is undeniable. Over the past decade or so, he’s emerged as a leading thinker and experimentalist in the fields of neuroeconomics and decision making. He is also perhaps the most intriguing faculty hire Wharton could have made.
Platt joined the University in July 2015 as a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor, with appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine’s Neuroscience Department, the School of Arts and Sciences’ Psychology Department, and Wharton’s Marketing Department, where he also serves as the founding faculty director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative (or, as it’s been creatively abbreviated by Platt and his staff, WiN). His bulging portfolio crosses multiple disciplines and ends in a series of say wha? questions: What exactly is the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative? And what fever dream resulted in this unlikely marriage of business and neuroscience?
On Graham’s show, Platt offers some insight. “We are primed by evolution,” he says, “to seek things that in the non-modern-day environment would have been very important for our success.”
The upshot, he continues, is that numerous items once scarce and vital — sugar and fat, for instance — are now easy to obtain and ubiquitous. Our brains, however, are still wired to treat exposure to fatty proteins — in the form of cheeseburgers or chocolate cake — like the discovery of water in the desert. With some beef in your belly, your brain deals out a flood of chemicals, like dopamine, that stimulate feelings of comfort, reward, and happiness. As a result, we crave new hits of such foods and risk growing fat. The trick, Platt suggests, is to replace these “habit-forming” rewards with healthier practices, like exercise.
“So, bottom line is the brain is working against us!” concludes Graham.
“That’s interesting phrasing you used,” Platt says. “‘Working against us’ — the brain is us.”
The brief exchange set the stage for the range of topics in their ensuing conversation — from quitting smoking to finding your most fulfilling career path — and also for Platt’s new role at Wharton. His appointment here is novel, even revolutionary, but it’s also entirely evolutionary. Neuroscience, after all, relates to absolutely everything humans do, from putting on our pants to conceiving of new technologies and bringing them to market. Platt has been eyeing a synthesis of brain science and business for a long time, a marriage that will — if he’s right — change how corporations do just about everything, from marketing strategies to internal decision making and employee management. And in leading the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, Platt looms as one of the world’s most important neuroscientists and the foremost explorer of the next frontier in business: the tangled mass of billions of neurons and synaptic connections that lies at the foundation of all human enterprise.
— Steve Volk
Posted: July 17, 2018