Pairing Business and Neuroscience

Pairing Business and Neuroscience

This piece was written in May 2017, soon after the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative launched.

By Lauren Hertzler

At first, business and neuroscience might seem like an improbable pair. So when Penn launched its Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, WiN for short, its distinctiveness spurred particular attention: How exactly do the two fields coincide?

“It’s shocking and provocative,” says Michael Platt, the program’s founding director. “But that’s exactly what we aim to be. The Wharton Neuroscience Initiative is a deliberate mash-up of neuroscience and business, and our intention is to explore every domain in which these two can inform each other.”

WiN launched this past September, and opened its bright, new space in Steinberg-Dietrich Hall—right next to the Wharton Behavioral Lab—just before winter break.

It’s led by Platt, a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor with appointments in the departments of NeurosciencePsychology, and Marketing, and Elizabeth Johnson, WiN’s executive director and senior fellow. The duo worked for more than a decade together at Duke University before coming to Penn last year. Kate Molt, who formerly worked in Wharton’s marketing department, serves as the program’s coordinator.

“Wharton is not your grandfather’s school of finance anymore,” Platt says. “Just as it has put major investments into analytics and innovation, Wharton knows neuroscience will be key to the practice in the next decade.”

The relationship often comes down to decisionmaking—something the business community spends a lot of time thinking about.

“But we know relatively little about the biological mechanisms that underlie decision-making,” says Johnson, a neuroscientist by training. “Although there have been great strides made in the last 15 years in that capacity, it hasn’t moved into the realm of application yet.”

Platt continues, “We are finally in a position to apply that knowledge in a much more real-world environment, to real-world questions that have impact. What was a dream 20 years ago can now be achieved.”

WiN’s goal isn’t to turn Wharton students into neuroscientists. It’s more about developing a common language.

“You have to have a lingua franca in order to even begin to have creative applications emerging out of this community,” Johnson says. “You have to have a sense of open communication between disciplines, which this forum provides.”

Some early faculty affiliates include the Annenberg School for Communication’s Emily Falk, whose work predicts behavior change after exposure to persuasive messages; the Wharton School’s Gideon Nave, who studies the biological basis for how humans make decisions; the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Danielle Bassett, who uses tools from network science and complex systems theory to enhance understanding of connectivity in the brain; and the School of Arts & Sciences’ Coren Apicella, who analyzes the evolutionary origins of social behaviors.

The Initiative hopes to “amplify” the academic homes of its faculty members, as well as students, Johnson says.

“I think situating this kind of initiative at a university where it’s a walking campus in an urban landscape, where the schools of medicine, law, business, arts and sciences, even vet, are all right here, is an incredible asset,” she says. “It encourages movement into an intellectual space like Wharton, where they may not have felt was their home before.”

As WiN continues to develop its presence on campus, it hopes to be a place for related education—it’s already spearheading new courses—and abundant research opportunities.

“We hope to bolster the educational and research platform to make it possible to do integrative research that’s both vertical and horizontal,” Johnson explains. “By vertical I mean undergraduates all the way through faculty, but even more vertical to include outside partners from industry and the corporate world, and by horizontal I mean from across many different disciplines.”

A big part of WiN’s plans is also to sponsor regular, open-to-the-public events. It’s already coordinated a half-day conference this past December, focused on the interactions between brain science and marketing.

“Philadelphia is such a hub of activity for us, and we want to engage with the community at large,” Johnson says. “It will only increase what we are capable of doing.”

Lauren Hertzler is a staff writer for Penn Today published by University Communications.