Episode 266

Paul J. Zak, Professor and Author, "IMMERSION"

Published on: 25th September, 2023

In this episode, Mark interviews Dr. Paul J. Zak, a distinguished scientist and professor at Claremont Graduate University, known for his extensive research in the fields of creativity, neuroscience, and happiness. Dr. Zak's work has taken him from academia to entrepreneurship, and he's a four-time tech entrepreneur, TED speaker, and author of "Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness."

1. **The Journey to Understanding Happiness and Creativity:** Dr. Zak's journey began with a passion for helping people lead happier and healthier lives. His research aims to understand the science behind happiness and creativity, ultimately bringing academic findings to the real world.

2. **Immersion Neuroscience:** Dr. Zak founded Immersion Neuroscience, a software platform that measures real-time brain activity to determine what the brain loves. This platform has applications in entertainment, education, advertising, and monitoring emotional wellness.

3. **Narrative Structure Enhances Experiences:** Dr. Zak emphasizes the importance of a narrative structure in creating immersive experiences. By telling stories that engage and emotionally resonate with the audience, businesses can enhance customer experiences.

4. **Measuring and Enhancing Customer Experiences:** Dr. Zak's research highlights the importance of psychological safety, narrative, and passionate delivery in creating immersive customer experiences. Social interactions and connections play a vital role in this process.

5. **Predicting Hit Songs with Brain Science:** Dr. Zak's work extends to predicting hit songs using brain activity data. By understanding how the brain values music, his team achieved 97% accuracy in predicting hit songs three months in advance.

6. **Brain as Predictor:** The brain can serve as a predictor for market outcomes, and measuring brain activity from a moderate number of individuals can yield highly accurate predictions, simplifying the need for massive data collection.

In summary, Dr. Paul J. Zak's research demonstrates the powerful intersection of neuroscience, creativity, and happiness, offering insights into enhancing customer experiences and even predicting hit songs using brain science. This episode provides valuable insights for businesses and individuals seeking to tap into the science behind extraordinary experiences and emotional connections.

Paul's Website


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Paul, welcome to the show. Thanks so much, Mark. I'm so interested in this overlap. I wondered if you could tell us about that defining moment where you saw this intersection.

my academic lab to the world.[:

I end up starting companies or working with people to commercialize the findings we had. And once we had enough information about this neurologic state called immersion, it made sense to bring this to the public by founding the first neuroscience as a service platform that lets anybody measure what the brain loves in real time.

Anyplace people are doing interesting things.

This idea of defining that immersion neuroscience to find the brain's preference what is it about unlocking what's inside the brain to understand that?

In the sense that I just want to get to the core factors driving human behavior.

And surprisingly, that behavior doesn't come from your elbow or your knee, it comes from your brain. And so by measuring brain activity, while people are doing particularly decision tasks which is really what differentiates you from me from the guy down the street are different sets of decisions.

chocolate ice cream. I like [:

So I used to give the example of the DMV, the kind of worst experience. Except I was at my local DMV recently cause I had to renew my license and they had fixed it. Like somebody has DMV experience, someone checked in, they, they told me where to go. They told me how long I'd have to wait.

It was efficient. And I said, at the end, I'm like, I love you guys. I'm not going to trash the DMV anymore because you have now figured it out that people don't want to stand in line forever without information, without a human talking to them, right? So they have screens, they have monitors, you're going places.

I was in and out in, five or six minutes. That was really amazing. Lift up the

hood a little bit on on this technique. What are some of the methodologies that you use to, to measure this?

Yeah, great question. [:

Make sure we understand this principle. We published research, that research is vetted by experts. And so you don't want to put crap out in the world. And so yeah, trying to do this really carefully. I should say the original work was funded by the U S taxpayers. We were tasked by the department of defense and some other agencies to identify combinations of signals in the brain that would accurately and consistently predict.

What people would do after a message or an experience. And so in my lab, we generally start with looking at changes in neurochemicals and blood. So we do a blood draw. We show you, for example, a public service announcement, do another blood draw, and then pay some money because we're torturing you and then say, Hey, by the way, If you want to flip some money back to the charity associated with what a childhood property go for it.

t privately. And we compared [:

This neurologic state I've called immersion that we uncovered that seems to be the brain's evaluation mechanism for experiences with some social content. Try I try to answer your question. I'll do it briefly if I can. So once we discovered this combination of signals from the brain, we can evolve them a way to create a single signal that's very highly accurate and predicts across domains.

So that is It tells you how much your brain values this experience. And Mark, this, our brains, not only me, but our brains are super, super lazy too. They just want to idle most of the time. So when we see this neurologic state of occult immersion, it's really metabolically costed. The brain goes, Holy crap.

ous variable, right? There's [:

Now, these are the world's best mints. I should really buy those. That's the reason I think that immersion strongly predicts know what songs will be hits three months in advance. How many tickets a movie will sell whether people remember an ad the kind of it's been used in corporate training by Accenture for six years.

Like how do we craft training, which is generally getting really metabolically costly so that people get it. And we create the ROI of training, which to me is information retrieval, right? That information is stuck in my brain so that I can use it. Weeks or months later, it's great value for my organization.

work in a journal article in [:

Brand growth and financial growth for that matter. If you have a positive customer experience, you're more likely to recommend, you're more likely to, share it with a friend kind of thing. And so I'm curious, as design thinkers, sometimes you say we want to design these experiences, not leave them to chance.

How can we apply some of this research to these experiences?

Yeah, that's the key question, right? If it's just amusing or interesting science, then it's not really useful from a business perspective. So the business case here is using neuroscience to drive up customer lifetime value, but I want to wow that customer so much that he or she says.

a great experience now, but [:

And so the neurochemicals that are associated with attention and emotional resonance have this interesting interplay that create a craving. To repeat the experience they burn this into memory and go wow This was a fabulous experience. So we mentioned right before we got on I just returned from cape town, south africa So it's about a 28 hour flight for me to get back to los angeles.

You know long and I tell you the service was extraordinary i'll mention this united airlines. Thank you united Flight attendants happy to be, the first fight is 15 hours. Like you can spend a lot of time with these people. And every time they smiled I'm like these people are in the right job.

people are awesome. So that [:

Like it was just an amazing experience. So they've created that craving for me. So what are those components? There's really three things to think about. One is what I call staging. So let's create the environment where I can really be immersed in that experience. So I've got to make you comfortable.

I've got to create what we call psychological safety. So we have a physiologic measure of that. Are you comfortable in this environment? If not, let's work on that first. And what do you think you did when you got on the airline? Oh, hello. They know me, right? Hello, Mr. Zach. Would you like a champagne?

Would you like a cup of coffee or whatever? Oh, yeah. Coffee would be great. Thank you. So they used my name. They made sure I was comfortable. Anything else they can get you before we take off? Okay. Great. They did a great job on that. The second is now to create the experience for me. And that experience we have found by measuring over 50, 000 brains, that...

e in immersion. So I'm going [:

Because that's the way our brains work as social creatures. Oh, this is how I use this new exciting thing. And then I get, I might want to purchase it. And then the third part of that is how I deliver it. So I could make you comfortable, psychological safety. I could use a narrative structure. But Mark, if I talk in a monotone, it's gonna be terrible, right?

So it turns out that this immersive state sorry, this neurologic state immersion is contagious. If I'm excited about this, like I am right now, you get excited about this. So you have to deliver it with passion, with authentic emotion. So those three components are measurable and controllable. So the innovation for the platform was, we said, get this out of the lab.

We all want great [:

What is he or she doing? How do I replicate? How do I train the other people to do that? Are they touching the client on the shoulder? Are they showing the clothing? Are they offering them a cup of coffee? I think of all, ABCDE testing, but it's all testable. And what's interesting is that, what works for Nordstrom may not work for the GAP, right?

Maybe those are different customers. Those are different sales associates. So even though we're capturing activity from these old parts of the brain that capture emotion, the experience of that for the customer may be quite different. Hence measurement.

I love that. I think it's worth underscoring for the listeners who think about designing customer experiences.

u've got this, psychological [:

And then, as you say, are different people or different locations or different settings delivering them in different ways, that it truly is measurable.

And also I think, we are, once we get to be adults, we can learn, but that learning is actually metabolically costly too. So somehow Mark seeing the data, like my own data, I go, Oh, I'm actually not doing what I thought it was doing because, Obviously I'm an adult.

and my background is [:

So I'm a little bit stressed. I'm excited talking to you. But that's okay. Modern stress is fine, actually. So we want to have challenge stress. We want to be really focused. We don't want to live in a zero stress world. The zero stress world, Mark, is your brother in law who sits on the couch all day drinking coarse beer and playing video games.

He's under stress, right? He needs to be thriving. He's just in a bubble.

Yes. I love that. And I guess then to carry this the step further to the subhead of your book that includes this source of happiness. So we've been talking about satisfying, customer experiences, but let's take that to the next highest level of true happiness.

There's customer satisfaction, but then there's true human emotion and happiness.

I have these peak immersion [:

To be more present and more emotionally open, and we know from literature, from my lab and others that individuals with stronger social connections live longer, healthier and happier lives. So I think from a business setting, it says that businesses that want to create extraordinary customer experiences are doing this sacred job, which is helping people.

Have the ability neurologically to really be connected to those around us, right? Those customer experiences are not a social. They're social, right? Even if they're online, they're still from the brain perspective. They're still social. And so if I can, as a business, create those extraordinary experiences, high immersion experiences.

g thing that we can, even as [:

We can actually connect better to people around us. In fact, we found this interesting positive, although low slopes gradient as we get older, we're more likely to have highly immersive experiences because we have better emotional regulation. I get old enough, like you and me I don't really care.

Someone cuts off me in traffic. I don't care. When I was 25, I chased that guy down and, eh, whatever the guy's in a rush, I don't even care. And so that emotional regulation means I can spend more of my time in the sort of the positive emotion quadrant rather than the angry I don't get revenge quadrant and the anger just again, burns energy.

I had my kids were a little [:

And so you're like, Oh, this is amazing. I'm 55 and I just built, for Great guy friends who are amazing who I, really love these like brothers. Like we just do all the cool stuff together. And that's weird, right? Like even when you're older, you can still build these powerful relationships.

And so we're not only talking about customer experiences, but life experiences, aren't we?

. Yeah, they are. And I think they run together. Yeah. What do you do with your buddies? You go do something. You don't sit around. Generally, you don't sit around the house and I don't know, maybe you watch sports, but for my friends we're all doing something.

So we're spending money. Having crazy adventures, jumping out of airplanes and skiing and doing whatever. And, it's, that's a positive peak experience and it's enhanced when we're with a group. So I think one business takeaway is for corporate training, for a customer experiences, social always adds more immersion to it, right?

o have someone to talk to or [:

I had a great time and met a bunch of people because I was speaking and all that. But when I went to Cape of Good Hope, I was there by myself and I still had a good time. But imagine I had someone I really cared about. I could, Oh my God, look at this. We saw penguins. They're like these crazy penguins down there.

And so I'm taking pictures. I'm sharing it with my family or whatever, but I'm don't, I have not anybody acutely to talk to about that. So it's a different experience.

Terrific. Listeners, my guest is Dr Paul Zack and Paul, you mentioned something ever so briefly and I read about this. I would be remiss if I didn't shift a little bit and talk about how machine or this kind of immersion can predict a hit song.

he radio? Or on streaming or [:

music. Like all good questions, the answer is probably. Give me the backstory on this. I'm going to suppress the name of the company, but I was in New York and I was having a meeting with a guy, someone introduced me to, I didn't know well, it worked for a big streaming service that you would know.

And he said and I said, what's the biggest problem you have at your company? It says too much music. There are 24, 000 new songs released every day worldwide. We sub categorize them, but ultimately we have a human listen to a 20 second clip and give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down. And I know those humans are making mistakes because people get tired, they get hungry, the dog barks, who knows.

And so I just wish it was a more efficient way to go through this music. And know, tell me about what you guys do in the lab. And I said, so man could immersion predict. Hit songs. I'm like, man, no one's ever done that before. Okay. I'd love a challenge. That sounds like fun to say. How about we do the world's cleanest experiment.

follow three months and the [:

And then what we found is that because this evaluation mechanism of the brain we found immersion is so rich, we're getting data second by second when we apply machine learning to these data. You get very strong predictive accuracy. So we're able to predict with 97% accuracy, three months in advance, which of those songs they sent us would be hits or flops.

know for sure if you sent me:

I'm at 97%. I don't think I can get a lot better than that. A [00:19:00] lot of data. Yeah, I think we found something really valuable here. And of course, once that research came out in the media, picked it up. We're in talks with a bunch of record producers about using our technology really again, because I'm a cheap bastard.

Remember, I wasted energy and time, particularly by young artists or young content creators who don't have the experience that Rolling Stones do on, playing, 100, 000, bar gigs and whatever. What if you had this tool that said, Oh, Okay. Not only do I like this but now if I begin to edit this piece of content so that my audience Gets more immersion.

They love it more if you will boy, that's that'd be a great tool for young artists and also for music distributors. Where do I put my marketing money? Do I put it on, I don't know, spread it across 20 different artists. Do I put it on two or three artists? How do I actually build a hit?

vies have lost money for the [:

And I think it's because they're still doing this pencil and paper stuff. We know they do a screener and they give you a pencil and a piece of paper and they go, tell me what you like. Did you like the ending? It was a costume. I don't care. What I want to know is, did that shake up your brain so much?

You go, holy crap. That was an amazing movie. I'm going to talk, tell my friends about it. Maybe I'll see it again. That's what we really want. And that's so far out of conscious awareness that asking people is always going to be a fool's errand.

Going back to what you said before about, this is about behavior.

This is about what action will you take? Not, ah, it feels good. Easy to dance to, whatever. This is not your old Dick Clark prediction of what a good song is.

And that really changed my whole philosophy of science, even in my, when I put my, research hat on in the old kind of neuroscience approach is like what part of the brain is most active when you listen to music, that's an okay question.

ferent question. If I take a [:

They're very similar. So I don't need to measure 1000 brains, right? I can measure a moderate number of brains and still have very good confidence. Again, not just us doing this. There's lots of other neuroscientists doing this approach as well.

Fantastic. Paul, can't thank you enough for the conversation.

It's been a real pleasure talking with you and it's activated a lot of sides of my brain, .

Awesome. That's great. Those nerds are sparking. That's right. So what a pleasure to talk to you and for listeners happy to engage any friend of yours, mark, or listener of yours as a listener or friend of mine so you guys can reach out and find me .

further questions, I'm happy [:

That sounds great. My guest has been Dr. Paul J. Zak, professor at Claremont Graduate University. He's author of Immersion. The neuroscience of creativity, happiness, and what's going on in our brain that creates these actions. Thanks again, Paul, for being on the show. And listeners, continue this kind of new thinking. It's great to have hunches. It's great to work on our intuition. It's also good to have data.

And it's also good to follow the science. When we put those two together, that's when the magic really happens. Until next time, I'll be unlocking. Your world of creativity. We'll see you soon.

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Your World of Creativity
Catalyst of Inspiration, Stories, and Tools to Get Your Work Out Into the World
On YOUR WORLD OF CREATIVITY, best-selling author and global brand innovator, Mark Stinson introduces you to some of the world’s leading creative talent from publishing, film, animation, music, restaurants, medical research, and more.

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Mark Stinson

Mark Stinson has earned the reputation as a “brand innovator” -- an experienced marketer, persuasive writer, dynamic presenter, and skilled facilitator. His work includes brand strategy and creative workshops. He has contributed to the launches of more than 150 brands, with a focus on health, science, and technology companies. Mark has worked with clients ranging from global corporations to entrepreneurial start-ups. He is a recipient of the Brand Leadership Award from the Asia Brand Congress and was included in the PharmaVoice 100 Most Inspiring People in the Life-Sciences Industry.