Mental Coupling: How A Good Story Links Attorney to Jury


“The shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story.”

                                                                              – Anthony de Mello 

Storytelling is a powerful medium. But understanding just how storytelling effects a juror’s mental processes is even more empowering when crafting your case presentation.

Every litigator knows a good story is essential for presenting a compelling case argument. Jurors respond to a well-crafted story. Story helps jurors to mentally organize the presented facts of the case into a sensible, engaging narrative, as well as trigger familiar contextual associations that may arouse sympathy for the presenter’s side.

But cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have revealed that what makes a story “captivating” to an audience involves a much deeper & more powerful mental interaction between speaker and audience. Good storytelling doesn’t just grab attention or influence imagination, it quite literally effects the listener’s brain on a neurological level. Scientists monitoring the brains of both storyteller and his/her audience have documented an amazing dynamic: the listeners’ brain activity begins to mirror that of the storyteller. The listeners’ neurons fire in the same patterns as the speakers. This “mirroring” brain activity also occurs among the multiple listeners. Neurologically – every one is on the same page. This is the phenomenon of mental coupling.

The purpose of the human brain, described in its simplest function, is to: 1.) take in sensory information; 2.) recognize patterns in that information, and; 3.) make assessments or predictions based on those recognized patterns. Through storytelling – and stimulating mental coupling with the audience – the storyteller can better inform and guide the cognitive processes of that audience. “Recognizing patterns” is accentuated via your well-crafted story and the triggering of mental coupling. The story told is processed in each listening brain in mirroring fashion, but each brain experiences the elements of the story as their own ideas and visualizations.

That’s a powerful tool to understand and apply.

When processing facts, only the Broca and Wernicke’s areas of the brain are engaged. This minimal neuro-engagement occurs when viewers are presented with a typical text-based PowerPoint. FMRI studies show that Mental Coupling_Wavescouching those same facts in a good story lights up multiple other areas of the brain as well. Story can put the whole brain to work. The brain responds as if the story events were happening to it. This is important when understanding that some jurors may be strong in fact processing, yet others are not. Both groups benefit from the story. But the resultant mental coupling, with the activation of additional brain faculties, can help cognitively weaker jurors absorb and retain the facts in a meaningful way.

A well-told story can have another powerful and complimentary effect on the listener’s brain. A good story can release increased dopamine into the system. Dopamine enhances the brain’s ability to focus and for longer periods of time, and to better retain information with greater accuracy – information you likely want the juror to recall with clarity & purpose in deliberation.

And storytelling can further change the brain’s chemistry. When captivated by an engaging story, the brain produces oxytocin, a substance known to increase generosity, compassion, trustworthiness, and sensitivity to social cues … a more highly receptive jury.

Courtroom IllustrationAnd while mental coupling enables each in your audience to experience the elements of your story in their own thoughts and visualizations, supporting that story with well-crafted visuals greatly enhances the juror’s assimilation of those story points and facts. The brain processes visuals 60 times faster than it does that of orally conveyed information (printed text as well as words). Providing a multi-sensory conveyance of the facts and story engages more “processors” of the brain. Speaker-listener synchronicity broadens across more faculties of the brain, with a more seamless and guided efficiency. The story becomes more sensory dimensional and better embedded in the juror’s memory.

Story is powerful. Mental coupling is the goal. Understanding this dynamic neurologically – why & how it works – will aid the presenting attorney in how best to craft & utilize story as a strategic tool. Because, after all, what is the best outcome of any good story for a litigator and the client, but a happy ending?