Hey, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of The Author Hour Podcast. As always, I am your host, Gunner Rogers. I’m joined today by the brilliant Paul Zak and we have an incredible conversation, a very insightful conversation about his new book, Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness.
Now, on the whole, it might seem like his book and his message is really only for marketers and business owners and UX and UI designers. This conversation shows that it is so far from the truth, whether you are in business, whether you are in education or you just want a new framework and a new concept of how to attain and maintain happiness in your life, this book and this conversation is for you.
So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Paul Zak.
All right, as stated in the introduction, I am super privileged today to be joined by Paul Zak. Doer and researcher, publisher of many works, you can look it up multiple TED talks by this man but today, we’re specifically talking about his brand-new book, Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness. Paul, thank you so much for giving us some of your time today.
Paul J. Zak: A pleasure to be here.
Gunnar Rogers: I’m a marketer by trade and by study. So selfishly, I’m just so excited to dive into some bits of the book and the research and just this concept of immersion with you today. So to just ask a kickoff question, for you, when did this concept of immersion in reference to neuroscience and your study really begin to come to the surface for you?
Paul J. Zak: So, we were funded by the US Department of Defense’s research arm and some other agencies that you can read about in the book, to identify signals on the brain that would predict what people would do after a message or an experience, and that’s a tall order.
So we measured about 140 different signals in the brain, began to combine these in really weird and unexpected ways and we identify this neurologic state. It’s called immersion, which seems to be the brains evaluation mechanism for experiences and messages that we have, and the more we value them, the more we act on them, the more we remember them and the more we enjoy them.
So it was really just this very steady, 15 years of hard work, lots of mistakes but it is like kind of the ultimate question as you suggested, why do people do anything? Why not just sit on your butt and you know, relax and I don’t know, just watch Netflix for the rest of life and yet, the experiences we have are often so poor that we’re disappointed, we’re frustrated, right?
Going in stores and it adds that fail and 80% of the movies that consistently lose money. So, how is it possible that we’ve missed the connection between people wanting extraordinary experiences and their ability to create them? The book fills that gap by saying, “Let’s start with the brain.”
If we know what the signature is, what extraordinary experience in the brain, then we can reverse engineer the process and create these experiences, and that’s what we do in the book. The book is based on 50,000 measurements of brain activity. It has allowed me across all kinds of different applications to understand what it takes for creators of experiences from advertising and marketing to in store experiences, education, to training, you know, how do we actually do this really well?
And the first way to answer that question is to measure and once you’ve measured enough, then the general principles kind of make themselves known. Nature reveals itself.
Creating and Fostering Experience
Gunnar Rogers: Definitely. Thankfully we have amazing people like you who can interpret it though, and so at what point int this research journey did the lightbulb go off for you as far as this is actually applicable to marketers, advertisers, designers. Like, this started as something that was funded by government organizations for interrogations and different things like that. When did that lightbulb of who else this could be useful for go off for you?
Paul J. Zak: So there’s a true answer and an untrue answer. So I’ll start with the untrue answer which is, I love building things to help people. Well, that’s true, but that’s not really why we did this. The true answer is that, neuroscience is expensive and I am a cheap bastard and when companies started coming to my lab saying, “Hey, we have read about you in the media and we understand you have some way to measure how good our ad, customer service training is. Could we hire you to help us?” and I said, “Sure, give me a suitcase full of money, we’ll do some work for you.”
And at some point, we got enough people doing that that we said, “Gosh, there’s a real need for this technology.” So we end up launching a software platform and lets anybody measure what the brain loves in real time. So what’s interesting about the book is, not only is there science and lab research that is the foundation for what we’re doing. There are enumerable client applications where real companies, some of those which gave me permission to put their names in the book which is very nice.
Gunnar Rogers: Thankfully.
Paul J. Zak: Used the immersion measurement to actually create really amazing things, like movie trailers that put butts in seats, like education that doesn’t put you to sleep, and so, ultimately, this is about identifying what people love and it’s very hard to quantify love, right? How much do I love my children or how much do I love my dog? How much do I love talking to you?
That’s hard to consciously articulate, but immersion is the neurologic substrate of love or of value, and once we can measure, then we can actually really edit, curate experiences, so that they are extraordinary.
Gunnar Rogers: I love that and I am curious, some of these early adopters, those first couple of suitcases full of money, those clients, how many people were skeptical before they saw the results?
Paul J. Zak: A 100%. Everybody was skeptical and they should be. So by personality and by training, I am a skeptic as well. You’re trained in science to always be skeptical of your own work. So we did this over and over and over. We had third parties verify our results, we did blinded predictions.
We just gave this offer away to lots of people to play with and over time, not only did we learn more about how to create extraordinary experience but we actually improved how we measure it, so it became easier and faster and that allows us to really help companies create extraordinary experiences as scale, right?
So if you’re a big global company, Accenture is one of the companies that’s been very public about their use of the immersion platform to create better meetings, better corporate training. Accenture really wants to determine if they’re getting a return for the investment they make training their employees.
You know, all they had before us was asking people if they like it. Like it is not the same as valuable. Valuable experiences are saved the brain in a very particular way that make them more memorable, that’s the goal of training, right? It’s to put information in your head that you can recall and interestingly, create a craving to repeat the experience and this is so interesting and completely non-obvious from the neuroscience.
That when I have an extraordinary experience, I want to do that thing again. So in the business world, we call that customer loyalty, right? I just blew your mind. That was like, “Holy crap, I want to do this again.” So the book has both examples of those extraordinary experiences and a lot of examples of people trying their best and just abjectly failing because they don’t have the right understanding of what it takes to create an extraordinary experience and that understanding is that this experience has to be unexpected.
It’s got to be powerful, it’s got to be emotional and so, the book gives you really, a playbook, algorithm if you will, that across different types of experiences, tells readers exactly how they can use the science I’ve done for going on 20 years, take all that and put it into a formula and once you’ve got that, then you could be more effective at your job as a marketer, as an advertiser and as an educator.
So it’s really a satisfying for me to think, “Oh gosh, we can help the world get rid of these absolutely boring frustrating experiences by giving people a playbook that makes it more likely that you’re going to have happy customers, you’re going to have loyal customers and you’re going to actually put a little bump of happiness into people’s lives”. Like, that’s really awesome too.
Gunnar Rogers: Yeah, that’s relevant to a question I wrote down as I was preparing to meet with you because you pointed out, 80% of movies don’t make money at all. You know, we talk so much more about how many bad songs, bad movies, bad experiences there are in the world, mundane experiences even and I was wondering from your perspective, is it a consumer issue or is it a creator issue?
Paul J. Zak: What a great question. I think it’s both. I think creators again, haven’t had the right understanding of what it takes to consistently create extraordinary experiences. Consumers also think that every time I walk in a store or watch an ad or watch a movie, that it should be the best thing ever.
So there’s always a distribution there. So one of the interesting neuroscience findings is, how to identify super fans for your experience? So in a lot of cases, I discuss in the book in which the experience is just okay, it’s not great, it’s not bad but there’s a subset of humans who just go crazy for this neurologically.
And so, identifying the tip offs, the tells, if you will, that tell us that I’ve got a bunch of super fans, these super fans actually can drive many kinds of different creative content to success by putting the word out, by watching that movie four or five or six times, and so how we find those super fans is also a kind of a core part of the book and how we really know they’re super fans, and here’s a real secret from the book.
Super fans will work to help you if you just ask them. They don’t need money, they are all in and so to me, this is just a huge leverage point that so many businesses ignore, which is who are my super fans, give them a little bit of love and they will help you be successful.
The Power of The Super Fan
Gunnar Rogers: I love that, and then on the creator side, outside of just not understanding immersion, why do you think so many creators and providers of experience, whiff on making something extraordinary?
Paul J. Zak: Yeah, there’s some interesting philosophical problem with that, right? So you talked to many artist, many creative people and they say, “Look, I create something that’s going to blow my own mind” but because you, as a creator, find this really interesting and satisfying, does not necessarily mean that audiences will find it interesting or valuable.
So that’s that disconnect, right? So I’m not saying that people should not take their experiences and their passion and put it into whatever they’re doing, but at the same time, without testing, without knowing about the most effective ways to keep people’s brains immersed in the experience, you’re kind of making a plan on a hope and a prayer.
So you know, hope is not a strategy. Really knowing exactly how the brain responses experiences, identifying the ways that people express value that you can observe and then really, testing whenever possible. I mean, this is done I think, very poorly, again, by asking people if they like something.
Liking and immersion are actually almost unrelated, even though as I said earlier, an immersive experience is reported as enjoyable. Just because you like something, doesn’t mean it’s any good. It just means that you’re trying to be nice or you’re, you don’t know what to compare it to. So again, how much do I like my new phone on a one to seven basis. I don’t know, I don’t even know what that’s compared to.
But the beautiful thing about neuroscience is that brain activity, the left part activity of the brain is the common currency of value. It is comparable across individuals, it’s comparable across different kinds of experiences. So once we measure that activity and we know the brain’s evaluation mechanism, we can objectively say, “Here’s how to make this experience better, here’s why this experience failed, here’s how to edit this piece of content so it has a bigger impact on the market” and that’s a really powerful finding.
So again, because we have so much data that we collected over the last 15 years on immersion, we’re able or I’m able as the author to then, derive these core principles that design creators can use, so that the likelihood is that their experience will be in fact, extraordinary.
Gunnar Rogers: I love that and what do you believe is the hardest core principle from immersion for these designers to implement.
Paul J. Zak: That’s a good question. I think, you know, the iterative approach, the humility of assuming that what you like or love is not what others will like or love. You know, I have a couple of examples of very famous, you know, Academy Award winning directors who you know, after they win the Academy Award direct just a tunnel bomb of a movie and some of those never work again like, it’s so awful.
So how is it possible that you can do, you know, be best director one year and two years later no one wants to return your phone calls? Again, it’s the assumption that the content I create which goes to, I mean, a huge amount of effort, right? People put a lot of time and effort in smarts and experience into this but without, you know, really having a framework to understand what it takes and make an experience extraordinary, I think that’s what’s missing and I think that framework is rooted in neuroscience.
So I think it’s that humility, right? You know, I think, that the – maybe you don’t want everyone to love what you create but you certainly want a lot of people, right? If you’re in business, a lot of people to dig this thing.
Gunnar Rogers: Yes, there’s such a thing as too little people enjoying your product.
Paul J. Zak: Yeah, even if they’re super fans, right? You’re not going to get enough of a return on the big investment that people make. I mean, I think a great example is in retail. There are so few examples of consistently great retail experiences by a brand type. Even the luxury brands, which I’ve discussed it in the book are, if you go into those stores in the mall, you know, very inconsistent.
So I think that also, that’s also just a lack of training, it’s a lack of personalization. It’s really simple things that can set up the conditions for extraordinary experience, whether it’s preparing that customer that he or she is first of all, comfortable in the space, it’s not feeling rushed or crowded.
They actually have the bandwidth in the brain to actually have an amazing experience and I think, one of the key takeaways here is if the experience is amazing, even if you don’t purchase now, again, it plants that desire to do it again, right? So you want to go back, I’m going to have that experience again.
A great example of that is destination shopping. So I discuss this in the book on this some detail, a great example is a Bass Pro Shops. If you have ever been there, you know, it’s a destination. It’s this giant, there are a ton of things going on from the restaurant to rock climbing wall to –
Gunnar Rogers: The fudge.
Paul J. Zak: All the weirdest stuff, yeah, fudge and you know, 40 kinds of boats and so it’s just a great experience to have and whenever I go there I’m like, “I don’t really need anything, maybe I’ll just have lunch.” I always end up buying something because I’m just having such a great time.
So again, it doesn’t mean that every retail outlet should create an experiential space for people but there is something I talk about in the book called narrative retail, which is actually using the way that people transit through your stores to tell a story and it turns out that stories are the most effective way we have found to sustain immersion for longer periods of time.
So stories that have characters, have crisis, have tension and that actually can be done in retail. In the book, the readers have a number of examples of how to do that.
Gunnar Rogers: I love that and you mentioned the book — I did want to ask, you know, you have achieved many things in your career as far as going all the way to Papua New Guinea to perform experiments. You have done many things, you have achieved many things, what made you decide to take the immersion concept and formula and turn it into a book? What was involved in that decision for you?
Paul J. Zak: Yeah, most of my career has been spent developing knowledge and technologies to help people live happier lives and the ability, as the book talks about to train ourselves, to train our brains to have peak emersion experiences, turns out helps us live fulfilled lives. I know what it really means to have an extraordinary experience and when I start stacking up these extraordinary experiences, people get happier and happier.
So ultimately, all of my books have been about happiness and that is why happiness is in the subtitle of this book. So as we get to the end of the book, I talk about love, I talk about living a satisfied life, a longer life, having a longer health span and so you know, for sort of general readers who are interested in human behavior and how to live a fulfilled life, you’re going to find a lot of tidbits in the book even though most of the book talks about how businesses could create extraordinary experiences.
The same applies to us in our personal lives, to creating extraordinary experiences in our families, with our work colleagues, with our friends. So there is a real call to action in the book, which is you can live life to the fullest by capturing or finding these extraordinary experiences and repeating them so that your brain is kind of expanding and its capacity to really be fulfilled, and when you’re fulfilled, it turns out not only are you happier but the people around you are happier.
You are more attractive as a romantic partner, you’re more interesting as a parent and as a friend and that is what we all want. So ultimately, much of our lives as fashioned comes from our relationships and when we have these extraordinary experiences, those experiences have social content and as I get better at being a social creature, I share that with those around me and that builds up my happiness.
Gunnar Rogers: I love that and that’s very relevant to this next question, it’s sort of two in one, just straight from the horse’s mouth, what is the most immersive experience Paul Zak has ever had and conversely, what is the most mundane experience you have ever had? I totally understand if you can’t use names or company names for either of these, but I just want to hear in your experience, what’s been the mountain top and what’s been the absolute abyss?
Paul J. Zak: So I am going to answer your question but I am going to do what from a science perspective, which is I’m much less important than the crowd because I may be weird and I am probably am. So of the experiences that we’ve measured, these many, many experiences, one of the most powerfully and consistently immersive is Disney Land.
Gunnar Rogers: Okay.
Paul J. Zak: So Disney Land is all about storytelling. It is not just, “Here is another rollercoaster.” It’s a rollercoaster embedded in a narrative, it is a rollercoaster that builds anticipation because the brain loves anticipation. It helps build up the neuro resources to be in immersed in an experience. So Disney Land is in the 95th percentile overall when we measured real customers going through the experience of Disney Land. So Disney Land is really quite amazing.
The most mundane, I think we all had these experiences. You know, standing in line to DMV or staying on hold. I think I discussed some outstanding positive examples too. The Four Seasons, staying at the Four Seasons or people who have done that is consistently for me an extraordinary experience, where they greet me by name. They already know that my room is ready. The doorman who opens the taxi for me knows my name.
I mean, they are so careful to create the experience that this is your home, this is your place, we are ready for you, we are ready to serve you and we know you’re tired. You’ve come from someplace else that is why you are staying at a hotel and we’re just going to make this the most wonderful experience ever for you. That’s the best.
Embrace What It Means to Be Social Creatures
Gunnar Rogers: I love that and with your research in mind, with the book in mind, which is available today, the Kindle version is 99 cents by the way. So everybody, make sure you go take advantage of that discount. The book in mind, the software in mind, your work in mind, what do you believe is the future of experiences and the future of immersive experiences?
Paul J. Zak: I think the future is easier and easier measurement of immersion. I think it is really in the quantified self. So once we understand what we ourselves love, then give me more of that and really beginning to be able to curate our lives for greater happiness by using technology, so that’s for an individual, right? For businesses again, I think it’s this humility to constantly measure, rehearse, edit, improve.
So measurement is going to be king in the world and by having a tool that tells me and maybe those around me what I love doing, which just brings me ultimate joy, what is better than that, right? It does mean we need to explore a little bit, right? We need to try things to see how we respond to them but you know, when you find something you love doing, you just want to do it more and more and you gain that real joy of doing something that is just so powerful in your life and it changes us a little bit.
So I think we’re all evolving even as older adults, older adults continuous to make new neurons in the brain. They continue to learn new things and so once we’re in this learning mode about really doing the best in life, being as happy and satisfied as possible, that’s I think really where it’s going, and so the book really lays out how I think that’s going to happen in the last chapter and you know, we don’t know.
The brain is a funny organ because we don’t really know our inner feelings and thoughts. Even if the brain creates language, it doesn’t mean that we have any insight into our deep emotional states but with technology, we can actually capture that and so I think, you know, the book is really a plea for people to try new things, to assess those activities anyway possible, to include others in them.
So a real rule for the book is that activities done with another person or in a group are almost more immersive than activities done by one self. So you think about watching a movie, you can stay at home and watch a movie streaming but going to a theater with other humans shoulder-to-shoulder with you in this big dark room with these big booming speakers, it’s a different experience and generally, it is a more immersive experience when we’re in a group.
So yeah, we’re social creatures. We need to embrace that and that means embracing the other humans around us.
Gunnar Rogers: I love that and I want to go back to something you said, you know, people are always changing and as we get older we develop new neurons. With immersion in mind, how has this process changed you?
Paul J. Zak: Wow, what another great question.
Gunnar Rogers: I’m good at my job.
Paul J. Zak: I think it has made me less afraid and less boring. So I’m a big believer in trusting one’s own research. So as I have gotten into my 50s, I started doing more activities in a group that would create extraordinary experiences for myself from zip lining through the rainforest to skydiving to all kinds of interesting activities that I typically wouldn’t do. I am a pretty nerdy person.
I am a scientist, I like being in my lab and you know, okay, this is my chance to begin to stretch my own brain, to start build in those pathways in the brain that allow me to really be fully immersed and experienced, to be deeply there and it requires a sense of presence. I talk about this in the book as well, I do that one more time Gunner, that is why I talk about this as well. We have to present, we have to mentally present to be immersed and experience.
If we are distracted, if we are looking at our phones, if we are doing three things at once that immersion is going to dissipate. So part of it is to shut things out and be in an experience we are fully there and there is a bunch of ways you can get to that state but I do discuss and recites back in the book, it’s not that hard. We live in a very distracted world but yes, slowing down, being fully present, being open to everything that’s happening to me and as much as possible, having that occur with other humans engaging the same extraordinary experience with me.
I think, you know, I have teenage kids and they sort of still think I’m cool, which is you know, the best measure of doing something right.
Gunnar Rogers: There you go, that is awesome. I love to hear that and so like we said, the book is out today. It’s beneficial for individuals to read, it is very beneficial for business leaders and marketers and people in the US and UI space to read. Anybody who picks it up, Paul, once people finish the book, what are the next steps they can take to implement immersion into their life and into their work?
Paul J. Zak: So the end of the book has a formula that people can follow, easy to remember acronym that tells you exactly the steps to take to create an extraordinary experience and also to have an extraordinary experience yourself and so if you follow these steps and you have seen lots of examples by the time you get to that point in the book, then you’ll have both the knowledge and the ability to be wowed by the things that are going on around you.
To be absolutely fully immersed in that experience and just to get that most enjoyment you can out of almost anything you do and maybe even standing in line at the DMV.
Gunnar Rogers: Just maybe and so I do have a couple more quick questions before I let you go, I know that you’ve got many things going on. I was just curious, did you write the book using the immersion formula?
Paul J. Zak: The book leans heavily on storytelling, even though it is informed by science, the examples in the book are told in story form so that they are both easy to understand but also enjoyable. So the book I think is immersive because it has these unexpected moments of surprise and job that they create. So I worked very hard to swallow my own medicine and to create an immersive document.
Gunnar Rogers: I love that. I have read the book, so I can say I felt very present reading the book and it was because of that reliance on stories because it’s true, it’s facts. Stories pull us in and they narrow our focus and they just gravitate us into whatever the information is and two more questions for you. One –
Paul J. Zak: Just to interrupt, you are kind of in a weird journey with me, right? So I go through the weird origins of immersion and then really how almost unexpectedly, we started working with organizations to create immersive experiences and so that ark of discovery really drives a lot of the narratives in the book where we didn’t know if this is going to work to predict hit songs, we didn’t know if we could help movie studios help put budgets in theater seats.
We didn’t know any of this and so you get to be part of that process of discovery as you read the book. I think it makes it much more interesting. So the stories are really contextualized into this discovery that we’re all going on and once you have been through that discovery, then it makes sense to share with people, you know, here’s the structure, here is the framework you can use because you have seen so many examples.
Gunnar Rogers: Exactly and I mean, just to your point that beginning of we didn’t know, that’s the stakes right there. That’s why you keep reading because I want to find out. “Well, did they figure it out? Did this work?” So that’s a plug from the reader to all the other potential readers out there, go check it out. You are going to love these stories. Selfish quick question Paul, how is your experience been on this podcast?
Paul J. Zak: The experience has been quite enjoyable and I have been measuring my own immersion and let’s see what it says in real time and I am about 10% above my typical meeting. So 10% is good because I am a very immersed person as you can tell. I love this. If you can’t hear how much I enjoy measuring people’s brains to understand what gives them this great jolt of joy, it is the best job ever.
So I am typically just over the top of immersion in whatever I do, so gosh, if a weirdo nerd scientist like me can become immersed in an experience, I hope readers will too.
Gunnar Rogers: They definitely can. The book is called, Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness, written by Paul Zak. Plenty of other wonderful things to check out online that he has done, that he’s accomplished. Paul, where can and where should readers go to follow you and to engage with you once they purchased a copy of the book, they’ve read it and they want to find you?
Paul J. Zak: They can find me at pauljzak.com.
Gunnar Rogers: Awesome and do you have a newsletter, blog or just a bunch of different information there?
Paul J. Zak: Everything is updated on there, lots of new stories and yeah, you could keep up to date on everything I am doing.
Gunnar Rogers: Awesome. Well Paul, once again selfishly, it’s been a pleasure and an honor for me to speak with you. Everybody listening, go check out the book. The Kindle version is discounted to 99 cents for this week only, so make sure you go take advantage of that discount. Whether you do or don’t, once you get a copy, get ready because you will be immersed in this incredible, incredible story and this incredible, useful information. Paul, thank you so much for your time today, sir.
Paul J. Zak: Gunner, thank you.