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Surprising Science

This Wearable Sensor Tracks Emotional Engagement and Empathic Response

But could we reverse-engineer this research to program people to give a desired response?
Credit: Getty Images.

Imagine wearing a sensor on your arm and going to a movie. At the end, that sensor sends you a text, giving you a score and the breakdown of exactly how emotionally engaged you were. According to neuroscientist and economist Dr. Paul J. Zak that day is coming.

He’s the Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. He’s also the author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. In 2004, Dr. Zak’s lab discovered that the hormone oxytocin was connected to trusting others and being seen as trustworthy in return.

I spoke with him recently about his new start-up known as Immersion Neuroscience and their engagement assessment device, called IN-band. It’s a passive sensor worn on the forearm. Although the exact way it works is proprietary, he says it senses nerves surrounding the heart to assess how engaged a person is in any experience, be it a movie, play, lecture, or even a date. The sensor has a 100 ft. (30.48 m) range and 50-100 people can be evaluated at one time.

Dr. Zak says this video scores high on immersion tests:

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Credit: Guinness.

With the IN-band, Dr. Zak can tell you your immerging quotient on a scale of 0-10. The sensor records not just how much attention you pay, but how emotionally engrossed you are in any type of content or experience. And “You can see that number from a second-by-second basis,” he said.

It took him 12 years of experimenting in the lab, measuring the brain signals of people immersed in different experiences, to develop it. It isn’t just about how engaged someone is, but whether or not they’re motivated to perform some sort of action. “We were first approached by the Department of Defense (DoD), US Intelligence,” Zak said.

Zak’s work helped them develop more impactful messaging for Voice of America, certain comic books, and other overseas, DoD-sponsored media, or as some might say, propaganda. But consider an area run by the Taliban. Zak worked on messaging that told good people to turn in the neighborhood terrorist quietly, rather than raise arms against him and get hurt or killed themselves.

He’s also helped train special forces in the so-called narrative arts, to make them better able to make connections with the local populace in regions where operations are ongoing. Though the algorithms used with IN-band were developed while working with the DoD, the real-time sensor was the result of eight more years of work. The DoD research was performed with medical equipment, which interested parties in the private sector found too slow and expensive for use in focus groups. They wanted measurements to occur in real time.

This video also scores high on immersion:

Credit: HP.

“Studies in the past have measured emotional engagement in a number of ways—drawing blood (oxytocin), fMRI, etc. But just paying attention is not sufficient to lead to action, you need that emotional buy-in.” Zak says his sensor not only measures if you’re engaged but if you’re likely to buy an item portrayed in an ad (if you’re in the market), tweet about a movie you saw, or donate to a cause. “I can show you a beer commercial with girls in bikinis,” Zak said. “But if I tell you a compelling story which improved my life, and could improve the life of people like you, you’re more likely to act on it.”

He says he can measure emotional engagement with 82% accuracy. “We can get a baseline measure, show you a public service message about drunk driving, and predict whether you donate or not to MADD (mothers against drunk driving).” Zak and his colleagues found a huge disconnect between what focus groups report and people’s actual responses to videos and other forms of messaging and media.

He said,

Because we’ve automated all these processes, instead of hiring all these PhD’s, (companies can soon) lease this equipment from us. All you need is 30 minutes of training. Anyone can use it. That way, they themselves can figure out ways to make this valuable. If you look at what people will pay for, they want fabulous experiences when they shop, go on vacation. So we’ve come up with a number of measures: losing track of time, can’t see distractions, relaxed, focused on what’s going on. This is what’s known as the flow state.

This video scores low on immersion:

Credit: Prudential.

It’s hard to know your true preferences,” Zak said. “Imagine your wife drags you to the opera. You’re wearing this sensor. At the end, it tells you that it was pretty good, a 6.5 out of 10. From a data perspective, I don’t know if you like that particular opera, or opera in general. If you went to three operas and enjoyed them, I would see a pattern.”

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Although he’s at the outset going for the corporate crowd to revolutionize focus groups, eventually he sees this being used in addiction treatment, weight loss programs, and in education, to help tailor curriculum to best reach each target audience.

Hopefully, such a sensor will help media companies, advertising, and nonprofits develop the kind of media we want, making it more interesting and engaging. Dr. Zak believes he’ll be able to micro-target certain demographics too, through what he calls neuro-segmentation. Women for instance, are more likely to respond to stories that include families and children. Young men however aren’t.

I tried to find a negative in here somewhere. For instance, I asked if this could ever be used to give us emotional responses or preferences outside our own will? “Good question,” he said. “If we could identify these patterns in the brain, we could reverse-engineer the passionate experience. But it’s not easy to reverse engineer.” Ditto for the flow state.

So is empathy and emotional engagement always a good thing? Find out here:


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