Storytelling and the Brain: An awesome chat with neuroscientist Paul Zak

If you could sit down and have dinner with anybody–dead or alive–who would it be?

Personally, I’ve always dreamed of sitting across from folks like Steve Jobs (to know what he was really like) or Albert Einstein (to hear how he saw the world and how he communicated).

Storytelling and the Brain: An awesome chat with neuroscientist Paul Zak via @stillmotion

In my career thus far, interviewing President Obama (running the camera) was definitely a highlight for me (and that came with getting tackled by the U.S. Secret Service as I rushed to make it there on time). The interview was read off approved cards, so there wasn’t any room for improvisation. However, standing there on the sidelines of the football field right after the teams had run out was an an incredibly thrilling interview to take part in.


A couple of weeks back I got the chance to fulfill another one of those dreams—a chance to sit down and speak with Paul Zak, the leading neuroscientist in story.

Paul has developed a ZEST score, the Zak Engagement STatistic, which can highly predict the action a viewer will take after watching a piece of content. More than whether somebody enjoys a film, or it makes them feel good, his ZEST score actually predicts action–will they sign-up for an email list, make a donation, or buy a product?

In diving into the world of story and in developing Muse I’ve read and re-read so much literature on the topic of story. Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey is a super famous one. Annette Simmons has several powerful books about business and story including Whoever Tells The Best Story Wins. Blake Bruce Snyder’s narrative storytelling series Save The Cat! and Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal is a must read.

In all of this literature and discourse, there is a huge figure that’s at the forefront of the real research into how human connection works. Paul Zak is a leading researcher into the hormone oxytocin and its role as a social connection. It was once thought to be mainly involved in childbirth and breastfeeding, but a lot of his research has revealed a much larger role that it plays in bringing us together as people.


Over his career Paul Zak has had numerous accomplishments:

  • Serves as the Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University
  • His book The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity was published in 2012 and was a finalist for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize
  • His work has been featured on CNN, BBC, NPR; his work has been published in many academic journals such as Nature, Scientific American, Journal of Bioeconomics, and Princeton University Press
  • TED talk: Trust, Morality— and oxytocin? has over 1.4 million views

We got the chance to sit down with Paul and chat about a number of things. He touched on how what we self-report to be our favorite stories aren't necessarily the ones that inspire us to act. He also spoke of how we're all really hardwired for connection—and that that's what we seek above all else. And interestingly, he also mentions how we don't actually seek a smooth story arc. He shares what kind of story arcs people do seek, as well as a number of other insights.

Watch this amazing chat with neuroscientist Paul Zak to see why humans are hardwired for connection.

Speaking with people like Paul is all part of our desire to understand the inner workings of story and continue to build tools and processes for others to use story more effectively. Working with thought leaders in the industry, folks like Paul, is part of making that happen.

And for you personally, who would you choose to have dinner with–dead or alive–if you had the opportunity?