We have all seen it.  We have all seen the lawyer or the student so involved with her notes or his script that they seem to have uncoupled from the courtroom itself.  I take that moment to study the faces of the jury.  What are they doing while the scribe at the podium has a private waltz with his scribblings?  In most instances, I see that the jury has also uncoupled.  Cognitive science has shown that the advocate here has not simply made a misstep with her dancing partner, but has missed the opportunity for the most amazing kind of dance: a cognitive coupling.[1]  A brain waltz taking place between two or more people.

The brain science behind “cognitive coupling” has been around for more than a decade, but the phenomenon might be new to you and is almost certain to be new to your students or the other trial warriors you work with.  Cognitive coupling is an electrical waltz between the brains of a speaker and listener—a fascinating Rogers and Astaire unison of brain activity shared when two people are truly involved in that phenomenon we so dismissively call “communication.”  Let us break down the science a little more from just one important study on the subject.

To study brain activity in both a speaker and listener, researchers recorded a subject telling a story that was personal to her and told without direction.[2]  While her voice was recorded, researchers also recorded her brain activity by fMRI.  This recorded story was then played for other subjects while their brains were being scanned by fMRI for processing activity.  As a control, they had someone tell a story in Russian and played that story for English speakers who knew no Russian at all.  I have spoiled the ending already, haven’t I?  The brain activity seen in the speaker, after a short processing delay, was mirrored in the listener.  When non-Russian speakers listened to the Russian storyteller, there was none of this mirrored coupling at all.  To tie up the loose ends that could account for the mirrored brain activity, the researchers had enough data to conclude that the speaker’s brain activity was not the result of hearing herself speak her own story.[3]

It gets better though.  The easier the communication was to understand, the delay between the speaker and listener’s mirrored brain activity shortened toward synchronicity.  Even better: When the listener could predict where the speaker was going, the listener’s brain activity would “predict” the brain activity of the speaker.  The speaker’s brain would then mirror the activity of the listener’s “prediction.”  Researchers next compared the brain activities of the various listeners in the study against one another and found that those, too, synced up in a marvelous dance.[4]

So, why should this matter to trial lawyers or trial advocacy professors and students?  It is the difference, as I see it, between communicating and communion.  I can communicate and yet completely fail at communion—the latter being quite simply defined as “sharing.”  In fact, the researchers concluded that the stronger the cognitive coupling activity between speaker and listener, “the better the understanding” of the story being told.[5]  How beautiful!  I often share the science of cognitive coupling with my students to refocus their goals in trial.  It cannot all be about the words on the paper.  It cannot be all about conveying the content we are certain will make or break our proof.  Our goal should be a connection at the electrical level, where jury and advocate swing, and mirror, and move, and predict, and dance the dance—all while opposing counsel sits and broods on the bleachers at the side of the gymnasium, wondering how he might cut in.

[1] Also referred to as neural coupling or brain synchronization, among other similar names.

[2] Greg J. Stephens et al., Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication, 107 Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, no. 32, 2010, at 14425,

[3] Id. at 14427

[4] Id. at 14426

[5] Id. at 14427