Michael Platt has always been interested in the ways that people are and aren’t different from other animals. When he started graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1989, he intended to study paleoanthropology, a field in which researchers compare the fossilized remains of people and other primates. But he quickly changed course. “It turns out it’s very hard to understand bones if you don’t understand muscles, and you can’t understand muscles if you don’t understand behavior,” he says.
Platt started working with two superstar primatologists, Dorothy Cheneyand Robert Seyfarth, who were based at Penn but studied free-ranging monkeys in Africa. The scientists were best known for experiments in which they’d record monkey vocalizations during social interactions and then, later, play them over a concealed loudspeaker and observe how the animals reacted.
That work didn’t quite satisfy Platt, either. He wanted to know how, exactly, the monkey brain encodes social behaviors — and whether our brains do it in the same way.
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