in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: December 12, 2023

Podcast #948: Increase Your Influence With the Science of Immersion

Why are so many social, business, and classroom interactions so dang dull? This state of affairs isn’t only a bummer for those on the receiving end of these underwhelming experiences, but those offering them, too. It means that people are failing to connect with others, teachers are failing to impart knowledge, and salespeople are failing to make sales. Because when you don’t engage people, you don’t influence them.

My guest says that the secret to making an impact on others is learning to turn ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones through the science of immersion. Dr. Paul Zak is a professor, scientist, and the author of Immersion. Today on the show, Paul shares what he’s learned from decades of neuroscience research on how to create immersive experiences that will set you apart as an individual or business and increase your influence. We discuss the elements that create immersion, what goes on in the brain when it occurs, how long it can last, and how to induce immersion, whether you want to teach a more engaging class, wow your customers, or simply make everyday interactions with friends and family more memorable.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Why are so many social, business, and classroom interactions so dang dull? This state of affairs isn’t only a bummer for those on the receiving end of these underwhelming experiences, but those offering them, too. It means that people are failing to connect with others, teachers are failing to impart knowledge, and salespeople are failing to make sales, because when you don’t engage people, you don’t influence them. My guest says that the secret to making an impact on others is learning to turn ordinary experiences into extraordinary ones through the science of immersion. Dr. Paul Zak is a professor, scientist, and the author of Immersion. Today on the show, Paul shares what he’s learned from decades of neuroscience research on how to create immersive experiences that’ll set you apart as an individual or business and increase your influence. We discuss the elements that create immersion, what goes on in the brain when it occurs, how long it can last, and how to induce immersion. Whether you want to teach a more engaging class, wow your customers, or simply make everyday interactions with friends and family more memorable. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Paul Zak, welcome to the show.

Paul Zak: Thanks so much, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you’ve spent your career studying why people or why certain things engage us more emotionally and spurs to action while others don’t. What led you down this research path, and how did your career end up having you doing research for the US military?

Paul Zak: So there’s an honest answer and a dishonest answer. Which one would you like?

Brett McKay: I think I want the story, the dishonest one. How about that? That’s always the more fun one. Right?

Paul Zak: The dishonest one is the DMV. You’ve been to the DMV.

Brett McKay: Yes.

Paul Zak: You’ve been to, I don’t know, Walmart.

Brett McKay: Yes.

Paul Zak: I mean, why do we have so many experiences in our life that are sucky? Right? Why isn’t everything fabulous? Why isn’t everything like the first date with the person you fall in love with or an amazing meal? If you talk to businesses, they all agree, customer experience is really important, but most of that is terrible. So the first dishonest answer is, I’m just fascinated that we cannot figure out how to wow people every time we have an interaction, whether that’s social, whether it’s in person, why is so much stuff mundane and dull. So that’s the dishonest answer.

The honest answer is that I’m a martian and I find the human species to be extraordinarily interesting. And we began to study why people are nice to each other, which seems to be like a weird, outstanding trait of the humans. Right? That we cooperate most of the time. I mean the bad behavior gets in the news, but basically, we’re pretty nice to each other almost all the time. Why? Right? Isn’t nature red and tooth and claw? Shouldn’t we be grabbing resources and anything we want from each other and murdering each other at a high rate? We really don’t.

And so we started doing this work, made some progress, and then the US military and some other agencies of the US government with letters that I shouldn’t mention, started funding us to… Asked us to identify signals in the brain that in combination would accurately and consistently predict what people would do after a message or an experience. That’s a mouthful. What’s that mean? They wanted us to build a neurologic prediction engine in order to train soldiers to have a new superpower called “persuasion.” So if I could understand from a brain perspective what will motivate you to take an action, then I can influence that action. And that’s what we all do all the time. Right? We’re social creatures. We’re constantly influencing those around us, whether we know it or not. So my view is we might as well be as good as possible at influence by understanding the factors that promote or inhibit people to cooperate with us.

Brett McKay: So, in your book, Immersion, you share this research you’ve done in a very easy-to-read, reader-friendly way, and you explain the neuroscience of what makes certain activities, certain moments in life really engaging or just lights us up and causes us to take action. And you say one of the key features is that these moments, they’re extraordinary experiences that put us into a state of immersion. So let’s talk about definitions first. Like, how do you define what’s an extraordinary experience? And then what do you mean by the “state of immersion?”

Paul Zak: So there’s a real dilemma when we started doing this work, which is, If I ask you to rate an experience like, I don’t know, the cup of coffee you had this morning, how good was that on 1 to 7 scale? Well, compared to what? I always say like, “Compared to my kids… ” My kids talk back to me. Forget my kids. My dog’s perfect, my dog’s always a 7. Right? But I can’t compare my dog to coffee. And so if we ask people to consciously report what they think they like, it predicts nothing, doesn’t predict movie ticket sales. Otherwise, every movie will be a hit. Right? Just ask people, “Do you like this movie? Great, we’ll edit it till you like it.” Every book would be a hit. So we went with what we can see. We gave people an experience and then we allowed them to do something that was difficult or costly. So for example, we showed them a public service announcement about some social ill, and we were taking blood before and after to look at changes in neurochemicals. We paid people like 40 bucks.

And at the end we said, “By the way, do you wanna donate some money to the American Cancer Society or whatever?” And we just compared productivity for people who did something after an experience versus those who did not. So our assumption was, If this experience was so exciting to your brain that it provoked you to do something difficult, it must have been really extraordinary. And then we worked back from there. And in doing that, we discovered this neurologic state called “immersion,” which is a set of neurologic signals in the brain. So it’s brain data that’s associated with being present. Right? The experience is not gonna be great if I’m distracted, if I’m not able to be fully present, and with the emotional value of that experience. So if I’m here, I’m present and this experience is emotionally compelling to me, those two things together tell me that this experience is valuable.

And that neurologic immersion is a continuous variable. So it can be low, as an okay thing or it can be really high, Oh, I love this a lot! This is the best thing ever! And so by being able to quantify neurologically second by second the value that people’s brains assign to an experience, we can work backwards. And this is what the book, Immersion, does. Is to take 50,000-plus brain observations and say, “Well, how do I create a great message as a marketer? How do I create a great movie? How do I create a great hit song?” We’ve learned so much from people measuring those activities so that we can create more of what people really love. Isn’t that what we want in the world? That’s what I want.

Brett McKay: So what are you looking at in the brain to measure this immersion state? Because like, as you said, I wanna talk more about this. Self-reporting isn’t useful because you say you like something, but it actually didn’t engage you. So what are you looking at? What are you actually measuring to figure out whether someone’s in this immersive state or not?

Paul Zak: Yeah, great question. And again, we’re doing this all the time. Right? We’re trying to assess, Should I go out with that guy or girl? Should I buy that sport coat? We’re really trying to assess our own preferences, but those preferences, my life and many others have shown, are deep in the unconscious areas of the brain, so they’re not really open to conscious awareness, at least not very clearly. So we found this immersive state is associated with the brain’s binding of a neurochemical called dopamine, that probably most listeners have heard of, that’s associated with things like risk-taking and reward. It’s the same chemical that drugs of abuse like cocaine and methamphetamine increase millionfold in your brain. So first thing, it’s this arousal chemical. I gotta be turned on by this thing so that I’m present.

And the second neurochemical is called oxytocin, which is that emotional resonance. Like how valuable is this to me emotionally? So if I have this kinda arousal state, dopamine, and I’m getting emotional value from this, that combination together, the dance of those two neurochemicals induces electrical activity that we can measure with big $100,000 machines or now with things like smart watches while applying algorithms in the cloud. So it allows us to actually quantify second by second when something is good or bad. So can I give a concrete example? ’cause this sounds like we’re at 30,000 feet.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Perfect.

Paul Zak: This is super useful. So we built a platform so that anybody can measure what the brain loves. And one of our longest-term subscribers to our platform is the professional services company, Accenture. And they have found in the $1 billion they spend a year on corporate training, that their employees cannot stay immersed in training for more than 20 minutes. Right? So if I want to get this information into your brain, immersion says, “It’s important, important information saved in the brain in a way that makes it easily accessible.” Accenture has now broken down their training into 20-minute segments so that they get the most impact for the money they spend on training. I don’t know why it’s 20 minutes, why it’s not 18 or 22, but they found around 20 minutes, your brain is fatigued, you need a break. So brain cells are just like muscle cells, they fatigue with use.

And immersion is really metabolically costly. So if I’m gonna influence you, if I wanna get information in your head, I’ve gotta give you this intensive and generally short experience so that the information is categorized, put in your brain, and then potentially influences your behavior. So this is really the science of influence.

Brett McKay: Okay. So when we are experiencing an immersive moment, there’s dopamine, or dopamine levels rise ’cause this thing is grabbing our attention, but then also combine with that oxytocin levels rise as well. And oxytocin, I think people have heard it as like the nurturing molecule. It’s like the thing that helps us bond to people. But you’re saying it also helps us experience that emotional… Like it makes the event we’re experiencing emotionally salient to us.

Paul Zak: Correct. Right. And so it’s both those kinds of things. And again, those activate large networks in the brain. What we found is that if we grab data from the brain’s output file, which is these 12 cranial nerves that come out of your head and send information to the rest of your body, I can grab a huge amount of information, networked information from the brain. And that was the real breakthrough that we made about 10 years ago, is that as opposed to putting in a MRI scanner or putting a big EEG cap on your head, that we can actually grab these data from your cranial nerves and get really good signal where we’re able to predict things like hit songs through months in advance with 97% accuracy using immersion or predict mood in the elderly with 98% accuracy. So we’re really capturing… I’m gonna use one bad word, I hope that’s okay. I’m really capturing what one of our subscribers to the software platform called the “give a shit measure.”

So because the brain is so metabolically costly, so energy-hungry, it wants to just cruise most of the time. So when we see this neurologic state of immersion, it’s really expanding a lot of metabolic energy. So the brain is investing all this energy to process this experience, and that’s why it’s valuable to us. The brain goes, “Wow, this is the best thing ever! Give me more of this.” So again, think of that gorgeous guy or girl you see walking down the street, you’re like, “Whoa! How did nature create this amazing creature?” Or I don’t know, the best meal. I just came from South Africa, I had one of the best meals of my life, a 2-hour dinner, course after course, this chef’s tasting menu. And it was amazing, just mind-blowingly good. And I was just totally immersed the entire time. So give me more of that.

Brett McKay: Okay. So by knowing this immersion idea and that there’s this dopamine and the oxytocin, as you said, you can reverse-engineer this to create more engaging experiences. Let’s start with this. Like a lot of things in our life, they grab our attention. Right? We all have smartphones and there’s things that when we’re scrolling through, it grabs our attention, but they’re not emotionally resonant. So what’s going on there? Why are some things… They grab our attention, but they don’t emotionally resonate. So like what makes an attention-grabbing moment have that oxytocin boost as well?

Paul Zak: Right. That’s a good question. So let’s go two answers on that. So one is, if I grab your attention, but I don’t get any emotional value from it, I call that state frustration. Like I want this YouTube ad to be great, but after six seconds, I hover over the skip and I want to go away. Or some, I don’t know, new show, whatever that is. Right? It’s just frustrating. Like, I’m here, I’m present, I got the dopamine effect but just not getting much value out of this. So the second question is like, How do I do that? What we found now in measuring just tons and tons of experiences is that if I use a narrative arc, if I create tension, I have a human-scale story, we are as social creatures fascinated by the other humans. And that’s why movies are not going away, novels are not going away. We are really interested… Podcasts like this are not going away. We’re really interested in what the other humans are doing, and we can learn from them.

But if I craft that information as a story that is introducing characters who have a crisis or mystery, who have to resolve that mystery, who have to do something often extraordinary to do it, that seems to be the most effective way to sustain immersion. So again, we all know this intuitively. Right? If we’re, Brett, you and I are out at a bar at happy hour hanging out, we’re gonna be telling stories to each other. Right? And that’s essentially what we’re doing right now on your podcast, we’re kind of telling stories. I’m telling a little more technical story, but I’m still trying to craft that around a human-scale story. So when we measure stories, like when we work with movie studios and TV networks, you can see second by second when that story… By measuring immersion, when that story starts to lag.

Now, you don’t wanna be at a 100% percent immersion all the time, it’s too exhausting. You wanna modulate immersion. But even in our own daily lives, for listeners, think about crafting a really effective story in 3 minutes, in 5 minutes. It’s gotta be kind of tight, it’s gotta open hot, and you’ve gotta get me in the… “Open hot” means. Grab that dopamine attentional response like, Oh, something new’s happening here. And now add in that social component. Right? That, Here’s the crisis. Here’s the weird thing that happened to me. Here’s something that was unexpected that we had to overcome. That narrative arc is really the most effective way to entertain but also to influence people.

Brett McKay: All right. So to create immersive experiences, you have to tell a story?

Paul Zak: Yeah, a good story.

Brett McKay: A good story.

Paul Zak: Not any story, but it’s really gotta be tight. Think of comedians, they go to these clubs, they practice these comedy routines at small clubs over and over and over until they’ve really tightened up the language of storytelling. So we, as you know, civilians, we just tell stories all the time kind of randomly. But I would say if you want to influence others, and that’s what human creatures do all the time, so just embrace that. If you wanna do it really well, craft that story, practice that story, get it really nailed down so that in particular, if you wanna influence someone, you want that call to action or that request to happen at an immersion peak. So you wanna craft your narrative so that there’s a peak immersion, high attention, high emotional resonance at this point where you’ve really captured this person emotionally. And then you can move them in a direction that you’d like them to go in.

Now, people can always say “no.” Right? There’s no coercion here, there’s no brainwashing, there’s no secret sauce here, I’m not working for the North Koreans. But if I’m gonna try to influence you to do something that you can choose to say “yes” or “no” to, I might as well do it as well as possible.

Brett McKay: So when you’re crafting a story, what causes those peak immersion moments?

Paul Zak: Great question. Lots of things. One is authentic emotion. So think of a movie, great acting, you really extract the emotion. They’re not overacting. Subtlety. Jack Nicholson, really great acting. If you’re telling your own story, it’s really showing your emotions. So I and I think a lot of guys tend to be not that emotional, but if I want to actually influence you or entertain you, I actually need to express my emotions. Right? And so it doesn’t mean I’m crying about something, but it means I’m really authentically expressing how I feel. So the cool thing about immersion is it’s contagious. Right? If I’m excited about this experience, you tend to get excited about it too. And so that’s how social creatures influence each other. So it’s really believing in the story.

So the caveat to that is, if you’re making this up, if it’s fictional, it’s really hard to tell a good lie because as social creatures, we’re really good at picking up the unconscious signals of people who are lying to us. Right? That happens all the time, people lie. So we’ve shown them lots of published scientific research that basically these signals for uncertainty or weirdness, we see those in the brain. We don’t always consciously know it, but our brain knows it. And we have that kind of innate sense like, “I don’t know, this dude, something’s wrong with him. I just don’t get it. I can’t put my finger on it, but something feels off.” And that’s a very important signal as well. So again, if you want to influence someone or want to get that cute girl to go out with you, you’ve gotta be yourself. Right?

And again, we sort of know that, but be yourself, but craft that story, rehearse that thing you want to say so that it’s very natural. So Brett, you know I gave a talk at TED Talk about 10 years ago, it’s got a couple million views now, and I had 10 months to craft that talk. It’s 18 minutes. I did it over and over and over. I workshopped it. I got feedback. I had people critique how it was standing, how it was moving. I brought in props. All that was 10 months of writing and practicing and rehearsing. And it got a standing ovation, it went really, really well. But that’s how much prep… Maybe not that much, but a lot of prep is necessary to really craft a great narrative.

Brett McKay: Okay. So to tell a good story, you wanna show authentic emotion, you want to be sincere, but paradoxically, I think a lot of people think that in order to be authentic or sincere, it requires spontaneity. Right? You have to say things off the cuff. But in order to say what you really feel, you often have to intentionally practice it to express what you want to express instead of offering your jumbles of incoherent, spontaneous thoughts. So what else goes into an effective emerging producing story?

Paul Zak: So it really is structure. So think of three things, for listeners. There’s three things you can control that influence how much impact you’ll have on somebody. That impact, again, could be just entertainment, it could be influence, it could be buying a product, if you’re a salesperson. The first thing is setting the stage, so you want to establish psychological safety. I want this person to be relaxed, the person I wanna interact with. Right? And so that means you’ve gotta be relaxed, make sure they’re comfortable. If you have a full bladder, that takes away neural bandwidth and you can’t listen to my story or my pitch, whatever it is. So first establish psychological safety. “Hey, how are you doing, Brett? Great to see you. Would you like a cup of coffee? Yeah, have a seat.” Always gonna be a fun conversation. So establish psychological safety, number one. Number two is, think of structuring that content. So use a narrative structure, have this tight structure with a hot open, and have, if you wanna influence someone, a call to action at an immersion peak. And the third is how you deliver that content. Right? So deliver it, as I said earlier, with energy, with your own excitement about it so that you infect other people with your own immersion. So establish psychological safety, structure the content, and then deliver the content with immersion.

Brett McKay: And that structure, I think, is the important thing you talked about. There has to be that sort of tension where you think it’s not gonna be resolved but then you do resolve it.

Paul Zak: Exactly. So again for listeners, look at a… Just go online and pull up any old movie trailer, theatrical movie trailer, these are roughly around 3 minutes. And you’ll see that those movie trailers introduce characters. They put them in a weird situation where those characters don’t know what to do, and then there’s a crisis, that’s the peak immersion moment. And then they don’t tell you what happens after that crisis, you have to buy a ticket to go and watch that movie or stream that movie to find out what the heck happens. That’s a perfect structure for a call to action. I don’t wanna resolve the conflict ’cause now you have to pay to figure out what happens. But there’s always gonna be a conflict. If it’s just flat, Bob and Sue showed up, they went to their classes in college, and then they went home. I don’t care about that, I’m not learning anything from that, that’s not new. But they go to their classes and then a bomb went off and then Bob couldn’t find Sue, and then all of a sudden hears a sound. Okay, now, holy crap, maybe once in my life, a bomb will go off and I’ll use this information, this story, so I can learn what to do in that situation. So I’m putting tension into it. And in our normal lives, we avoid tension, but in the storytelling space, we want to actually create tension in other people. And we like that, from the listener’s perspective, we want tension.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. What’s interesting in this story arc that you can use to create tension and create those peak immersive moments, you can do this when you’re doing a sales pitch. And we can talk about some of the things you do when you’re teaching and you have a chapter on that, but you can do this with events, with physical things you’re actually doing. I think of Disney World or Disneyland, they do a great job of telling a story when you’re going through an attraction. Like even when you’re waiting in line, like they’re telling a story, they’re creating those narrative, those immersive moments. Then it’ll go down ’cause you need a break and then it’ll go back up. And then you go through the ride and you have a completely immersive experience.

Paul Zak: Exactly right. So if you think of the most famous rides at Disneyland or Disney World, like Space Mountain. Space Mountain is just a rollercoaster in the dark, but it’s wrapped around this amazing story of going to a space flight and you’re entering into the space center and you have to get on this ship. And so, yeah, Disney was brilliant in wrapping the attraction around a story. So I took a crew to Disneyland, this is in the book, and we found that on average, for the eight or nine rides we went on at Disneyland, that they were the 98th percentile, averaging 98th percentile compared to all other live experiences we’ve measured. So Disney is just nailing it. And part of that was the queuing up. As you’re queuing up, you have so many things to look at and listen to and hear and smell. And so they’ve really created this experience where again, they’re warming you up for the big takeoff of that attraction, so they’re, again, establishing that psychological safety, they’re intriguing you, they’re keeping you immersed.

So let’s do this in our daily lives as much as possible. Again, you don’t want to just tell your family member or loved one, “How’s work today?” “Great. Nothing happened.” Well, that doesn’t really tell your family member much but say, “Pretty good day. And the weirdest thing happened ever. A coyote walked into my office.” Okay, well I’m interested. Holy crap, a coyote walked into your office. I want to hear this story. Right? So think about giving people the information that is gonna be most interesting to them. Right? When we’re talking, when we have conversations just like this, we wanted those conversations to be interesting, engaging, immersive. We want all those things to happen so that we learn something new, and it’s the new information that creates tension in a story.

Brett McKay: As you were talking, it made me think about why Christmas is such an immersive holiday, ’cause it’s got a story, it’s got all these stories involved in it. Of course, you got the nativity story, but then there’s like Santa Claus and you have all these things that peak your immersion. And then you get to Christmas Eve, you’re counting down, there’s like this tension. And you don’t know, like when you’re a kid, it’s like, “Well, is Santa gonna come or not?” And you wake up and it’s just… Our brain’s getting hammered with oxytocin during Christmastime.

Paul Zak: For sure. And you have all those memories of the previous Christmases and all the amazing things that happen and family and friends you saw and great gifts. And so because the brain is so energy-hungry, those memories actually influence our immersion in current events. In other words, I’m actually kind of taking that immersion and putting it on steroids because I have all these good experiences from the past that build up my immersion in the current experience. And that’s why we want to repeat highly immersive experiences, whether it’s dating that person that you’re crazy about, you wanna see them over and over, whether it’s going to Disneyland again, shopping at a store. I just mentioned I came back from South Africa, so 30 hours to get home for me, the most amazing flight attendants, who smiled, who just made my flight so interesting and nice, and couldn’t been better. And you’re just beat up after all that time on airplanes and airports, and yet the people there made the experience so valuable for me. So shoutout to United Airlines.

Brett McKay: How would you make the DMV experience more immersive with this information that you’ve garnered from your research?

Paul Zak: That’s a great question. I think the first thing is greeting. So again, I wanna establish psychological safety. We’re taking time off work, we gotta go there, so have a greeter out front just like Walmart does. Like, “Oh, hello, sir. Can I get your name? We’ll get you checked in.” “Oh, Mr. Zak, welcome to the DMV.” Oh, holy crap. I would love that. First of all, just that alone will make my experience better. And then second, tell me what’s gonna happen. Right? Give me that narrative about the journey. “So we’re gonna have you check in at window seven, expect to wait between 6 and 10 minutes. Thank you for making an appointment.” And then they’re gonna get you checked out. “So you’re getting your license renewed today, so we should be out of here in about 20, 25 minutes. And my name is Bob. If you have any questions, come talk to me anytime.” Wow, that would be great. Now the problem with the DMV of course is it’s a government office and so they don’t have a profit incentive to keep me coming, I have to come. It’s a monopoly, basically.

But think of how many stores you go in. I was at a store on Fifth Avenue in New York, Brett, I don’t know, a couple years ago with my daughter shopping, some fancy, fancy store. My daughter goes to the… My daughter’s 20, she goes to the women’s section, I look at the men’s section. And literally, there were three salesmen standing there grab-assing with each other instead of saying “hi” to me. I’m looking around, I’m dressed nice, I have money. I literally went over the salespeople like, “You guys don’t wanna talk to me? You don’t wanna try to sell me stuff? Like, what’s happening?” They all just looked at me like blankly, and one guy finally said, “What are you looking for?” I’m like, “How about a sport coat? What’s new? What’s the… ” I mean I had to a beg them. As opposed to, “Hey, welcome to our store. Yeah, my name’s Paul. We have some amazing new sport coats in, just came in yesterday from Milan.” Alright, you’re telling me a story now. Right? I’m engaged in that. So really think about the best way to communicate as storytelling.

Brett McKay: Okay. So with an event like the DMV, you don’t necessarily have to create like a fantastical story like a Disneyland, where you have a queue and you’re going through some kind of cool Star Wars expedition because people would just be turned out like, “Oh my gosh, this is the DMV, what are you guys doing?” But the story could be like, “Here’s what’s gonna happen on your journey during the DMV. You’re gonna wait in line here and you’re gonna go there.” Like, that’s the story right there.

Paul Zak: That’s the story. But how about every 50th customer, you’re in a lottery for, I don’t know, something awesome. A free year of registration for your car, whatever. Like we wanna actually make this… We’re gonna gamify it. Gamification is really useful because it builds that tension, we don’t know who gets… Gonna get it. We’re all watching it. Wouldn’t that be great to have some kind of gamification at the DMV or any place?

Brett McKay: I wanna go back to this idea, this disconnect between us liking things and then us actually being emotionally resonant to it. And you found this with some Super Bowl commercial experiments you did. So you showed people Super Bowl commercials and asked them, “What did you think about this commercial?” And what you guys found was people would say they liked this one commercial, but if you actually looked at their data from their brain, they actually weren’t responding to it. So what’s going on when we say we like something, but our brain is saying is not really paying attention to it? Like, why do we like things that we’re not really emotionally resonant with?

Paul Zak: The short answer is that people lie. And people lie not because they’re malicious, usually because they’re nice and we’re asking them this impossible question. Again, liking compared to what? It’s untethered to anything that’s objective. So when we started doing this work commercially, I started getting that weird feeling like, “Okay, I can do this in my lab, I can publish research.” But if companies are paying us a lot of money to help them create immersive experiences and measuring the experiences they’ve already created, I wanna make sure I’m really doing it right. Yeah. So we started measuring Super Bowl commercials because we can measure this live. We would go to a bar, we would arrange with a bar to have 50 people come in and we’d buy them drinks and snacks and then measure the Super Bowl live while it’s going. And then also ask them like, “Which commercials… ”

We didn’t care about the game, we cared about the commercials. Right? This is the commercials are the apotheosis of advertising. Right? Super expensive. They should be the best. And those commercials are rated by USA Today newspaper every year. So we actually have that data. And every year, we have found a zero correlation between what people say they like in a commercial and what is immersive to their brains. Why? Because things we like are things that are easy, things that are familiar. And also, we try to be nice. We don’t wanna say, “Stuff is awful,” generally, if you ask people like in a focus group.

But there are a lot of commercials that are not really likable that really shake up the brain. So to me, the return on the investment of advertising is, I shook up your brain so much, this information is stuck in there. So now when you go to the store or go to the car dealer, you remember that experience. Immersive experiences are saved in the brain in a very special way because they have high emotion that make them more easily recalled. So if I wanna shake up your brain, deepen the unconscious parts, you don’t have conscious awareness of that. So we like things that are easy, that are funny, that are whatever. And by the way, it doesn’t matter if they’re funny, sad, weird. Some of the most immersive commercials are super weird. They’re just odd. And I don’t know, they’re just like surprising. So generally, people value, neurologically, things that are similar to what they know but a little bit different. So like in music or in movies. Right? We have genres we like. And I wanna have more of that genre, but I also want a little bit of new stuff added to it, but not too new. Right? If it’s completely weird, then it’s too far outside my general preferences.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You talked about one commercial that people didn’t say they liked, like they like, “That was the worst commercial.” But if you actually look at the data, it’s the one they most responded to, is this Diet Coke commercial. And it was like some woman just dancing like Elaine Benes, like off kilter, but that was the one that got the most response.

Paul Zak: Yeah, it’s unlikeable, and I’ve showed it many, many times, and people always agree. Yeah, some super tall, skinny woman dancing in this weird, awkward way and is shot with very asymmetrically against a yellow wall, and she’s talking in a weird way. The whole thing’s just weird, but it has a narrative structure. And it’s like a car accident, you just can’t look away, you gotta see it. It’s not likable, but again, I think that’s the mistake that we make when we create content, is that people should like it. Now, we do find that highly immersive experiences, when we ask people, are rated as enjoyable. So that’s a good thing. But enjoyable doesn’t mean it’s immersive. Right? If I like it, it doesn’t mean that it shook up my brain. So that’s what I wanna do. I wanna shake up your brain so you go, “Holy moly, I gotta do this thing. This is happening.”

Brett McKay: Well, and you also talk about this disconnect between liking and it resonating. This can explain box-office bombs. Like you talk about Pluto Nash, that Eddie Murphy movie in the ’90s. And what happens is these movies get made because they do focus groups, and the focus groups say, “Yeah, I like that.” And then the director and the producer start making changes based on what the focus group says. But the focus group is probably wrong, they might like it, but they’re not actually emotionally resonating with it.

Paul Zak: Yeah, there’s this fetishization of data. All data is not good data. Right? So I think I quote in the book, I think, Ridley Scott, some other directors who just ignore whatever those focus groups say. The classic example, remember the movie Marley and me from, I don’t know, early 2000s?

Brett McKay: Oh yeah.

Paul Zak: And then they focus-group that, they ask people about the movie, what they like, what they dislike. And they’re like, “Oh, don’t let the dog die.” Like, the whole point of that movie is the dog at the end has to die. Sorry, spoiler alert for people who haven’t seen this 15-year-old movie. So the dog has to die so the humans can take the lessons they learn from the dog and go on and live a good life.

But if you’re not a storyteller, if you don’t understand structure, if you don’t understand why a movie has resonance emotionally, then of course you don’t want the… Who wants the dog to die? But that’s the point of the movie. Right? So again, I think asking naive people who are not experts… But even experts don’t know. Right? Because we have this thing, Brett, I call the “Freudian hangover,” which is, we think from this coke addict Freud, that if I just probe you the right way, I can make the unconscious conscious. But actually those are separate data streams. The unconscious part of your brain is probably 99% and it’s largely not available to our consciousness. So if I want to have you tell me about your unconscious emotional response or an experience, you’re just gonna fake it. Right? ‘Cause you just don’t know. It’s like asking your liver how much it enjoyed your lunch today. You ‘ll be like, “That’s a stupid question.” That’s the same thing about asking… Let’s ask your brainstem how much it has enjoyed this conversation with Paul Zak. Well, your brainstem can’t talk.

Brett McKay: I think this disconnect can explain like why some movies become cult classics. Right? They might’ve come out and they bombed initially for whatever reason, but because they immerse people into something, it has a long like… I mean thinking like Christmas… Yeah, Christmas story. Right? We’re talking about Christmas. A Christmas Story, I think when it first came out, it bombed, but now it’s become this cult classic that everyone watches every Christmas and they have memories about this movie watching it as a child.

Paul Zak: Right. So you get that double whammy, you get the nostalgia, that memory effect, and it’s such a cute, sweet movie, and it’s also time-limited. Right? So again, one of the factors that we found almost always is that shorter is better. I’m not gonna watch a Christmas story 40 times before Christmas, I’ll watch it maybe once or maybe twice, I really have to. So that time-limited. This is the operators are standing by now. Right? We wanna make that tension… We’re gonna turn that tension into a decision and that decision’s gotta happen faster. But yeah, with streaming, there are so many movies that are out there that didn’t find an audience for whatever reason, they weren’t marketed well or people just didn’t get it. And then there are absolute classics, and it’s so great to have them. But again, for listeners, if you rewatch a movie, it gives you a great opportunity to see the hooks they put in there to modulate your immersion.

And for longform storytelling, again, I don’t want you to be at maximum immersion ’cause I just exhaust you and then you just want to quit. I wanna have this sine wave pattern. Up and down, different storylines with different levels of tension, and then generally those two or three storylines merging in the end into a big climax. So again, you can learn from your favorite movies or favorite TV shows, you know how they do that. You mentioned Elaine Bennett. So Seinfeld I think was extraordinarily well written, where there were almost always three different storylines, that at the end of that 22-minute episode converged into a big takeaway. And so, yeah, for people interested, watch a couple old Seinfelds and see how they wrap these three stories together that modulate tension from high to low and then bring it all together at the end.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some applications of this immersion idea. So teaching, there’s people who might be teaching in schools, but if you have a job, you might be doing trainings. How can we use this immersion idea to help students recall information better?

Paul Zak: Right. So think of the Accenture 20, 20, 20 rule. So don’t speak for more than 20 minutes, and after 20 minutes you’ll switch tasks. So 20 minutes of maybe explaining what you’re gonna do and then 20 minutes of something that’s active, participatory, people working at their desks or tables, and then think about 20 minutes of a debrief. So it’s really the flipped classroom on steroids, so shorter, more intensive. Accenture has found that breaks should be longer because I’m, again, exhausting those neurons in the brain, so put a break in there so people can refresh. You can use things like movement together to get a class or a training session. So, “Stand up and we’re gonna all clap together. We’re all gonna move or do jumping jacks.” And people naturally coordinate. So when you coordinate, you actually increase immersion because we’re all moving the same direction.

So brains will actually, physical movement will coordinate neurologic activity, which is super weird. So that’s one way to do it. And the next is, Really be responsive. So if you’re not measuring immersion directly, look for those signs like shuffling feet, movement in the seats that tell you that you’re losing people. So when I give public lectures, I always listen for those kind of movements or look for those movements or listen for those sounds or like, Okay, I’m losing the audience, I’ve gotta mix it up here. So what I do when I’m speaking for, say, an hour, is, I put in what I call “pivots.” If the audience is getting restless, I have a backup plan. And actually, every 20 minutes, in a talk, I have a pivot that I may or may not use. If the talk’s going great, run with it, it’s fine. If the people are getting restless, then pivot into that. I’ll change the area of the stage I’m using, I’ll go into the audience, I’ll have props or I’ll have things prepared so that I’m ready to continue to engage others. The shortest answer actually is, use multimedia. So if I’m giving an hour talk, I’ll probably show three to four videos to break it up. So I’ll show a short 3 or 4-minute video, so now something new is happening. And then I’ll go back and talk about that video. Maybe I’ll pull the audience if we have technology, talk, talk, talk, and then ask them to think about something or ask them to do something. So shorter is better and storytelling always wins the day.

Brett McKay: How can you use this immersion ID to be more persuasive. Right? Let’s say there’s a guy in sales making a sales pitch. How can you use these ideas?

Paul Zak: Yeah, so first establish psychological safety. Second, really think about the outcome you want to get. Right? If it’s sales, how much? What exactly is this person buying? Not like, “Would you like to buy one of our products?” But, “Hey, you know what? I looked at your company and I think our Nespresso coffee maker is gonna be perfect for your office. So let me tell you why.” And then can go through the history of how it was made and the technology and you have this… And then we made version one of the Nespresso, I’m making this all up now. And completely failed. The thing broke. People hated it. And I wasn’t even working for them. And I saw this product come out and I’m like, “This is a piece of crap.” And then they brought in this Italian engineer, amazing. His name was Guido. He actually created the most beautiful machine you’ve ever seen. And this thing will make 5000 cups of coffee in a row before you needed to service it, better than any other coffee maker. I’m making this all up now, it’s fake.

Nespresso is not paying me, I’m just looking at my coffee maker in my office. So it’s really crafting that story and then getting to a point where, “Hey, 5000 cups of coffee, this is gonna be the best thing for you. How many would you like?” Take that a high-immersion moment and then close the sale. So you’ve really gotta close the sale. What we often do with storytelling is we resolve the tension and then we wait, from a sales perspective. What you wanna do is, when you’ve got high tension, that’s when you wanna make the ask. Right? So you don’t wanna wait till that tension’s dissipated. It’s rare, it doesn’t last that long. Peak immersion moments last for maybe 20 to 30 seconds at most. So you’ve got that small window where you’ve really captured that person emotionally, that’s when you want to ask them to do something.

Brett McKay: We’ve been kind of talking about this throughout our conversation, but just using these ideas to create more extraordinary experiences in our daily lives. So this could be at work, it could be just a social interaction we have with somebody, it could be a date. What are some examples you’ve seen in your own life and in your research?

Paul Zak: Yeah, it’s really cranking it up. So one of the kind of motifs of the book or key takeaways is that once we train ourselves to be deeply immersed in experiences, we open up a wealth of opportunities to have stronger social connections, more influence than others, happier and longer lives. And there’s actually data in the book on that. So I really wanna be connected to the humans around me. And I said, “I’m a Martian,” earlier. I’m working very hard to be a human by really investing in relationships. So we can do this by, number one, the first step, being present. Right? So put away your phone, make eye contact. I call this listening with your eyes. I’m gonna give you the gift of my full attention, and then I want to be open in listening and absorbing what you’re telling me. Right?

I want that oxytocin effect to be really immersed and I wanna share the emotions that you are expressing as you’re talking to me, telling your story, doing something with me. So it’s really training ourselves to be in the here and now and to be open to experiences. And once we do that, gosh, at Starbucks or on the airplane, as I said, with a nice flight attendant, amazing 15-hour flight person who is smiling the entire time, I don’t know how he did it. Then I’m happier when I get off the plane and I see my family. I’m happier. Right? There’s, again, this sort of contagion effect in which it flows. So it’s really understanding that to flourish as human beings, we’ve got to connect to others at a fundamentally deep level at an immersion level. And when we do that, we get better and better at it. And even Martians like me can actually simulate being a human and actually having those full emotional connections to the people who care about us.

Brett McKay: Well Paul, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Paul Zak: You can go to Immersion with an “I,” or The book is Immersion: The Science of the Extraordinary and the Source of Happiness. The two things I really want in my life, I want extraordinary experiences and I wanna be happy. So if you want those things, you’ll get some lessons in the book. Brett, thank you so much.

Brett McKay: Well, thank you, Paul. My guest today was Dr. Paul Zak, he’s the author of the book, Immersion. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you’ll find links to resources when we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take 1 minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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