The Advantage Blog

This Is Your Brain On Narrative…

December 1, 2015 | By | , ,

A stock bit of advice that is frequently used by trial consultants is that you have to “tell a story” to be successful in trial.  The mere “stacking of facts” is not enough to successfully persuade a jury to accept your theory of the case.

There are many reasons this approach has become so ubiquitous in the realm of trial practice.  Jurors can relate to stories better than lists of information, and stories are how most people make sense of the world.  But I want to focus on a different component of storytelling that helps explain why it is so important:  the effect stories have on your brain.  The neurological impact of hearing a narrative helps explain why they are successful and also suggests some ways in which a story can be more effective.

Needless to say, my Ph.D. in speech communication did not prepare me for a deep understanding of brain research.  However, there are some excellent summaries of the literature that are instructive.  A New York Times article provided one such summary, discussing various studies that illustrate how stories affect the brain.  The research indicates that narratives affect multiple parts of the brain that are not activated by simple language.  For example, vivid language included in stories can trigger the sections of your brain that are used to decode smells and guide movement.

The activation of additional parts of the brain makes a listener’s experience more complete and can promote a better understanding of a story.  It engages a listener in ways that simple language does not, keeping the person motivated to hear more.  In the never-ending battle to keep the jury engaged, a good narrative accomplishes the goal of connecting with the audience and maintaining their attention.

Another interesting finding in the neuroscience research has to do with a concept called “neural coupling.” Though it sounds like some “new age” approach to romance,  neural coupling refers to the concept of a speaker’s brain and a listener’s brain activating in similar ways during communication.  A key research finding is that the extent of speaker–listener neural coupling predicts the level of success of the communication.  In other words, the more a speaker and listener’s brains are similarly activated, the better the listener comprehends the speaker’s message.

Importantly for attorneys explaining their case to a jury, the findings are that neural coupling occurs in “high-order extralinguistic areas that are known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful communication, including, among others, the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires, and goals of others.”  These are tasks that are often crucial to a jury when deciding whether to find fault in the actions of a defendant.

The use of narratives provides the best way to promote such “neural coupling.”  Weaving facts into a story helps to activate similar regions of the listener’s and speaker’s brains, which improves comprehension and promotes successful communication.  As a Jury Consultant I often hear attorneys say, “If I could just get inside the brain of a juror, I could make them understand.”  Encouraging neural coupling is probably as close as an attorney can ethically get to entering a juror’s mind, and the use of narratives is the most effective way to get there.