How our understanding of the brain impacts business

Michael Platt, a neuroscience expert on using neuroscience insight for innovation

Published: Oct 4, 2019 11:32:37 AM IST
Updated: Oct 4, 2019 12:24:44 PM IST

g_121929_neuroscience_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

Q. Tell us about your work at the Wharton School’s Neuroscience Initiative.
Our lab tries to understand how the brain makes decisions and motivates behavior. We are interested in why different people make different kinds of decisions. We use an array of techniques, including psychophysics, intracranial recordings, brain stimulation, pharmacology, eye tracking, pupillometry, brain imaging, genomics, and epigenomics to answer these questions. An important goal is to translate some of these techniques into wearable devices that will allow us to take neuroscience into both natural and consumer environments. We believe these new areas of exploration can be translated to improve business, drive new discoveries and applications, and enhance the education of future leaders at the nexus of business and brain science.

Q. Neuroscience research has provided some important insights about innovative thinking. Please explain.
Over the past decade or so, we have discovered that there is a fundamental neural network in the brain that serves to generate exploratory and creative behaviour. Basically, its sole role is to get your brain ‘unstuck’ from ruts and default patterns of thinking and behaving.

Very early in the evolution of life on this planet, brains evolved the capacity to repeat behaviours that led to something good and to narrow ones’ focus on those options. The problem is, when you become overly focused on repeating something that is reasonably good, you will miss the opportunity to find something better to explore. That’s really what this newer brain circuit is all about.

We have found that stimulating this circuit can literally cause animals to move away from a default option and try something new that they wouldn’t otherwise have tried—and humans possess the exact same circuit in their brains. This circuit is mutually opposed with the brain circuit that enables us to focus on routines and tasks, so there is a sort of ‘yin and yang’ going on in there.

We now know that the relative balance of activity in these circuits ‘sets your dial’ for how focused and routine your behaviour is, or how exploratory it is. And we’re coming to recognize that individual differences in their balance of creativity and focus are associated with differences in these biological circuits.

Not surprisingly, there are implications for organizations. The main one is that each person comes into the world with their dial set in a slightly different place. Identifying where that dial is set for each individual could be extremely helpful in identifying what people are going to be good at, how they might either target their career path or what kinds of training they might benefit from. I also think that we can leverage the neuroscience to engage in interventions or activities that can at least temporarily promote release from focus and allow more creative and innovative thinking to occur.

Q. You have come up with four ways to stimulate this brain circuit and increase innovative thinking. Please describe them.
The first one is the idea of stepping away. One of the worst things you can do for your innovative capacities is to sit at a computer punching numbers into an Excel spreadsheet, or writing emails. These are things that turn up your focus but at the same time they probably also turn down your creativity and innovative capacity. So, stepping away from your computer and getting up and walking around, taking breaks, are really important for stimulating innovative thinking.

Walking itself has been shown to increase creativity, because it allows your brain to wander and daydream — which is what researchers call ‘active problem-solving mode’. By stepping away and removing yourself from technology and other distractions, seemingly unproductive time spent away from your desk can actually help you come up with your best ideas.

That leads directly to the second tip, which is to completely unplug and do things that reduce stress. Exercise and practices like meditation and mindfulness are especially good at allowing one’s brain to relax and promoting the health of the exploratory brain circuit. And we are finding that these same benefits can be enjoyed while performing monotonous everyday activities. Google Global CCO Lars Bastholm has advised people to “Vacuum the house. Get on an elliptical at the gym. Paint a fence. Anything that will allow your brain to work in the background.”

A third tip is to mingle and encourage social interactions. We know from research that the innovation/exploration circuit is very active when we interact with others. That’s probably because it actually requires a lot of exploratory, bold thinking to predict how others are going to respond to what you say or how you behave. We also know that creating social bonds with others is really important for physical and mental health, and that it reduces stress. At IDEO, colleagues get together for lunch on a regular basis (think ‘soup on Fridays’, ‘tea and cookies on Tuesday’). And at Virgin Airlines, groups of colleagues go on outings to sporting or music events. London-based PR Agency PHA Media lets its employees make the call themselves: They actually provide a quarterly budget for their staff to use for activities of their choice—whether it be paintballing or attending the theater.

The fourth tip is to accept the biological reality of individual variation in the balance of exploration and focus, and to structure your teams accordingly. That means putting people who are creative types together to work on your most innovative challenges, and putting others together who are really good at carrying out tasks. This was very aptly demonstrated by the restructuring that Google did a few years ago when it created an umbrella organization, Alphabet. It now has highly-innovative divisions like Google X and other divisions that are more orientated towards carrying out functions and keeping them highly efficient, like Google Mail, Google Ponder and Google Search. These are things that they’ve been doing for a long time and they just want to maintain them and improve them—which does not necessarily require new ways of thinking.

Not surprisingly, Google actually has its own neuroscience team, as do Facebook and Amazon. All the big tech companies are thinking really hard about this.

Q. How can companies embrace these findings to assess people?
There are a variety of different ways that you can assess people. Traditionally within business, people have relied on the Myers-Briggs test or the Big Five personality tests. The problem with those approaches is that they are based on self-reporting, and people  don’t have good access to the reality of what is going on in their brain. Often, they want to answer in the way they think you want them to answer. You can address this bias by giving people tests like the Alternative Uses Test, which asks people to come up with as many uses as possible for common household objects like a brick or a pencil within a limited time. This and similar tasks activate the exploratory and creativity network.

One thing we’re trying to do in the lab is to find other kinds of biological measures that might provide improved predictive power for identifying peoples’ talents. If we can incorporate things like brainwaves and measures of pupil dilation in response to certain kinds of questions, all of those things would add to our ability to accurately predict what a person will be good at. We’re very eager to work on this with companies in the field, because the science is already very solid in the lab.

Q. One day soon, will neurological testing be a part of every organization’s hiring and promotions processes?
I think so. There are a lot of worries out there—ethical and legal concerns that come with any application of biological or health data to the hiring process. But I think that as people become motivated by the desire to advance and find the right position within an organization, they will want to take advantage of this opportunity—as long as everything is done in an ethical, private and secure way.

What I don’t think will happen is that people will need to get an MRI snapshot of their brain to identify where they ought to be plugged into an organization. The science isn’t that strong yet. But I do believe we can develop better models for the selection process that achieve much greater predictive accuracy, because the models will be informed by neuroscience.

Q. What’s next for your research?
We not only want to help businesses make great hiring decisions, we also want to help them create a supportive environment in which people can thrive. I truly believe that brain science has enormous potential to inform business.

Michael Platt is the James Riepe University Professor of Marketing and Director of the Neuroscience Initiative at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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