Michael Platt: It’s won­der­ful to be here in Davos shar­ing our com­mit­ment to improv­ing the state of the world. And the recipe is real­ly I think quite sim­ple. All you’ve got to do is grow the econ­o­my, increase par­tic­i­pa­tion in that econ­o­my, with­in a rapidly-changing world, with increas­ing automa­tion and tech­nol­o­gy, on a plan­et that’s strain­ing to meet our resource needs. Piece of cake, right?

Well I’ve heard a lot of opti­mism over the past cou­ple of days that we can do this using our human pow­ers. We can of course use our inno­v­a­tive capac­i­ties. Employ a lit­tle self con­trol and delayed grat­i­fi­ca­tion. And of course, increase our com­pas­sion, our con­nect­ed­ness to others. 

So, how are we going to do this? This is a big chal­lenge. How do we unlock this poten­tial? Well it turns out that brain sci­ence may pro­vide a key to unlock­ing this poten­tial. So over the last ten to fif­teen years, the new sci­ence of neu­roe­co­nom­ics has begun to pro­vide some com­pelling answers about how the human brain makes deci­sions. And this field basi­cal­ly mar­ries con­tem­po­rary cutting-edge tech­niques in neu­ro­science to the math­e­mat­i­cal for­malisms of eco­nom­ics, and to psy­chol­o­gy. And I’m sure you’ve read a lot about this in the media. There’s real­ly been an explo­sion of find­ings over the last ten years. And you’ve prob­a­bly won­dered your­self, how do you sep­a­rate the fact from fic­tion, the hope from the hype?

Well, I’ve done the hard work for you. So I’ve sift­ed through a lot of that mate­r­i­al, and I’m going to give you four prin­ci­ples you can take to the bank. I think these are rock-solid, because they have been observed in humans, ver­i­fied in ani­mals, and test­ed in many ways, as we’ll get to.

Okay, so the first is we can mea­sure how much you val­ue some­thing by look­ing inside your brain. You don’t even have to tell us any­thing about it. So, we can mea­sure your pref­er­ences by putting you in an MRI machine and tak­ing snap­shots of your brain in action. And we can pre­dict your decisions.

The brain weighs evi­dence and val­ue, sep­a­rate­ly, to make a deci­sion. So con­sid­er this chal­lenge, which you prob­a­bly con­front many times a day. You’re approach­ing an inter­sec­tion, and there’s a traf­fic sig­nal. And you have to decide whether it’s yel­low or red, and what you’re going to do. Are you gonna give it the gas or stop. Okay, that prob­a­bly depends a lot on whether you’re rac­ing to get your kids to school; this is a prob­lem I face all the time. How about if that traf­fic light is obscured by fog, as it was last night down in Klosters? It makes the prob­lem more chal­leng­ing because the infor­ma­tion, the evi­dence, is much noisier.

Turns out the brain has evolved an ele­gant and it turns out mathematically-optimal way of solv­ing this prob­lem. This was actu­al­ly writ­ten out by Alan Turing when he came up with a method for pre­dict­ing the loca­tions of Nazi sub­marines. And all it involves is a lit­tle bit of inte­gra­tion. Don’t wor­ry if you don’t remem­ber your high school calculus. 

All this means is that you’ve got two buck­ets in your brain. And each time you get a lit­tle bit of evi­dence say­ing the light is red, it goes into the red buck­et. If you get a lit­tle bit of evi­dence that the light is yel­low, it goes into the yel­low buck­et. Whichever buck­et fills up first, wins. That’s the deci­sion that you make. If the evi­dence is clear, there’s no fog, the buck­ets fill up quite quick­ly. You make a quick and cor­rect deci­sion. If the evi­dence is weak, it’s hard­er to fill up those buck­ets. It takes a lot longer. You’re more like­ly to make an error.

Now, it turns out that val­ue, how much we val­ue one out­come over anoth­er, sim­ply acts like a vol­ume knob, okay, that changes how quick­ly that infor­ma­tion flows into either of the buck­ets. So if you’re feel­ing like time is of the essence, that yel­low buck­et’s going to fill up more quick­ly and then you can press the gas ped­al and go through the light.

The third prin­ci­ple. Brain phys­i­ol­o­gy lim­its the num­ber of options you can use­ful­ly con­sid­er. It per­forms all these com­pu­ta­tions draw­ing the ener­gy of a low-wattage light bulb. And the way it does this is that every neu­ron, when it responds to a stim­u­lus, sup­press­es the activ­i­ty of its neigh­bors. That’s great if you’ve only got one thing to con­sid­er. How about when you walk into the gro­cery store and you’re con­front­ed with this? Now you’ve got hun­dreds or thou­sands of neu­rons sup­press­ing each oth­er. Think back to the last slide and those buck­ets. What you’ve done now is turned down the flow of infor­ma­tion to any of those buck­ets. It’s a lot hard­er to make a deci­sion in this con­text. And usu­al­ly you feel worse about it after­ward. The tyran­ny of choice.

Principal four, prob­a­bly the most impor­tant. Our brains are wired to be social. We can’t help but con­sid­er the social con­text when­ev­er we make any deci­sion. Even the sim­ple deci­sion decid­ing whether or not to approach a par­tic­u­lar per­son. We’ve per­formed this exper­i­ment. When you ask peo­ple whether or not they like this face, you actu­al­ly get brain activ­i­ty in areas that respond when you receive rewards like food or water or mon­ey. Social rewards acti­vate these areas. And we’ve shown by direct­ly record­ing the activ­i­ty of indi­vid­ual neu­rons in mon­keys who are pay­ing for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see pic­tures of attrac­tive mon­keys (we can go into to that lat­er), that there are spe­cial­ized pop­u­la­tions of nerve cells, neu­rons, in these areas that are exclu­sive to social rewards. So evo­lu­tion has pro­duced a par­al­lel reward sys­tem for social behav­ior. This is prob­a­bly why it’s so dif­fi­cult to dis­en­gage from social media. Go get some­thing to eat. (I know this is some­thing my 16 year-old has incred­i­ble dif­fi­cul­ty doing.)

So, you might imag­ine there are a lot of appli­ca­tions that might derive from this. We could use neu­ro­science as a mar­ket­ing tool. Use this infor­ma­tion per­haps to home in on your buy but­ton and press it a lit­tle hard­er. My col­leagues at Stanford University, for exam­ple, have shown that by scan­ning the brains of a lim­it­ed num­ber peo­ple in the lab­o­ra­to­ry, they can pre­dict the effec­tive­ness of microlend­ing cam­paigns on the Internet. That seems like a good thing. We could also use the same approach to fine-tune our mes­sages to help peo­ple make healthy choic­es. I think anoth­er area of poten­tial appli­ca­tion is align­ing con­sumers with prod­ucts. This is sort of pre­ci­sion marketing.

So by under­stand­ing some­thing about con­sumer expe­ri­ence, we can go beyond using demog­ra­phy, where you live, to more effec­tive­ly deliv­er prod­ucts to you that you like. And final­ly, I think we can also use this infor­ma­tion to help align peo­ple with their tal­ents and goals. How do you know what you want to do and what you’re going to be good at? We can poten­tial­ly use neu­ro­science to either put you on the right path, or help you achieve the right train­ing you need to get there. So my col­leagues and I for exam­ple have looked at brain respons­es to risk and uncer­tain­ty. Some peo­ple can han­dle uncer­tain­ty and some peo­ple can’t. If you’re a per­son who can han­dle uncer­tain­ty, maybe should go work for start­up instead of a blue chip company.

In the final few sec­onds, I want you all now to take a deep breath. It’s a tremen­dous­ly excit­ing time to be in neu­ro­science and think about its poten­tial for trans­form­ing soci­ety. But there’s a yawn­ing gulf between what we can study non-invasively in the human brain when it’s mak­ing deci­sions, and the actu­al fun­da­men­tal cel­lu­lar process­es that make it all hap­pen, that do to com­put­ing. And to kind of cir­cle back to Nita’s talk, a lot of the same ques­tions, where we think about the use of drugs that have legit­i­mate pur­pose in your neu­ropsy­chi­atric care, such as oxy­tocin which can be used to improve social func­tion in autism and schiz­o­phre­nia but may increase trust in peo­ple; sim­ple nasal spray. Or stim­u­lants that can be used legit­i­mate­ly to help peo­ple with atten­tion deficit focus. These drugs actu­al­ly act on the same chem­i­cals that under­lie our moti­va­tion. And of course as Nita brought up, we’ve already accept­ed as a cul­ture many enhancers that’re going to affect the way we make deci­sion. So, thank you for your attention.