The Neuroscience of Extraordinary Experiences

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Attention to experience + emotional resonance = immersion, the key component of extraordinary experiences. That’s according to neuroscientist Paul Zak, who has designed a system to measure immersion using neural signals, algorithms and smart watch technology. He tells us how he reached this groundbreaking approach.

Paul’s thinking sparked Experimental Campfire 9, where we asked members of our Founding Circle to reflect on how they currently measure experiences and how they might adapt his system in their own industries. Read the full debrief from Campfire 9 here.

Mind-blowing. Awesome. Unbelievable. 

These are the ways that people often describe extraordinary experiences that peg the tachometer. What about just in from that, something that is really amazing? Is it a 7? Or a 9? Or a 9.5? Or maybe it’s a 7 for you and an 8 for me. What’s the “truth”?

The truth is that people lie. They don’t lie because they are malicious, but because asking them to rate how much they “like” something is a fool’s errand. Enjoyment comes from evolutionarily old parts of the brain outside of conscious awareness.

Asking people to report how much they “like” something is akin to asking your liver to report how much it enjoyed the eggs and bacon you had for breakfast. We think that since our brains produce language, with the right prompting they can make the unconscious conscious. As Mark Twain said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

I’ve spent the last 20 years looking for neurologic signals that arise from extraordinary experiences. After measuring over 150 signals from the brain neurologically for a wide variety of experiences, I discovered a neurologic state I call “immersion” that signals that the extraordinary is happening. My research found that extraordinary experiences have the following qualities:

  • Unexpected
  • Emotionally charged
  • Narrow one’s focus to the experience itself
  • Easy to remember
  • Provoke actions

The components of the extraordinary come as a package, not in isolation from each other. 

Take action. Photo by George Pagan/Unsplash

It’s the “action” part that is key to finding immersion. Extraordinary experiences cause people to take an action, whether it’s donating to charity, buying a product, posting on social media, or returning to enjoy an experience again.

My team and I isolated neural signals for those who acted after an experience compared to those who did not. The two core neurologic components of immersion are attention to the experience and emotional resonance with it. The former occurs when dopamine binds in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, while the latter is associated with the brain’s release of oxytocin. 

I knew this had to come out of the lab, so I built a software platform that enabled anyone to measure neurologic immersion second-by-second and see it in real time. This is done by applying algorithms in the cloud to data from smart watches and fitness sensors.

The results can be used to provide better ROX and audience insights across a plethora of industries. Here are just a few examples of how we’ve used this technology to date:

Objective neurologic measurement has, for the first time, empowered experience creators to devise, measure, iterate, and improve experiences so they consistently blow people away. As the experience economy grows, so will the competition. Hoping the experience you create will win customers is not a strategy. Measurement is.

Want to hear how members of our Founding Circle reacted to Paul’s ideas on how to measure extraordinary experiences? Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know when we share the conversation from Campfire 9.

About the Author

Paul Zak is a neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University in California, USA and the founder of Immersion Neuroscience. He has discovered a way to accurately predict the behavioural outcome of an experience.

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