On 14 October 2012, Austrian thrill seeker Felix Baumgarter took a supersonic leap from a balloon suspended nearly 39 kms above Earth, reached a top speed of more than 1,350 km/h and became the first person to skydive through the stratosphere and break the sound barrier. He also lived to tell the tale.

While this death-defying stunt may seem nothing like courtroom cross-examination, the two experiences have one thing in common: from a physiological perspective, the fear response invoked by both is likely to be the same or markedly similar. 

The Daredevil and the Sound Barrier

In How to Train the Fearless Mind: The scientific way to control your fight-or-flight instincts, John Tierney and Roy F Baumeister give a fascinating account of the mental journal that preceded Baumgarter’s astonishing feat. Turns out that “Fearless Felix”, as he was known, finally met his demons when confronted with the prospect of being confined to a space suit for hours on end; the smell of the suit’s helmet evoked impending claustrophobia, as did the sight of a lake that led to the training area where he would be forced to don it. Without the help of coping strategies designed by clinical psychologist, Michael Gervais, Felix Baumgarter may well have bottled it.

How fear can sabotage intellect and will

Our experience of fear derives primarily from two primitive sections of the brain that both predate a third section – the prefrontal cortex – which governs language, reason and forward-thinking. 

The basal ganglia system, the oldest part of our brain and one we share with reptiles, has a basic, prewired, “fight or flight” response.

“Crocodiles don’t respond to threats by holding committee meetings, drawing up contingency plans, or negotiating with the other side.”

The younger – but still pretty old – limbic system is in charge of our emotions. It includes the amygdala, a short-circuit in our brain’s functioning that allows us to respond instinctively to sudden danger.

“Neuroscientists have found that the sight of a hostile face can trigger a reaction in the amygdala before it registers in the rest of the brain. The basal ganglia probably operate in a pre‐emotional manner and evolved to overreact. They often cause the animal to flee when it would have been safe to stay still, but that kind of mistake is far less costly than failing to escape from a predator. Suburbanites today don’t face a lot of deadly threats around the house, but the ancient parts of the brain still react the same way: better safe than sorry.”

Summed up, human beings are not quite as complex and sophisticated as we like to think we are. Sure, our brains allow us to remember, rationalise and problem solve and these abilities have, in turn, gained us a top-of-the-food-chain ranking. However, our evolutionary advantage carries less weight during times of stress and danger; it is then that antiquity takes over, with the hint of a threat causing the basal ganglia and amygdala to operate like hysterical Chicken Lickens , collectively overpowering the prefrontal cortex and rendering it effectual.

Managing fear smartly and consciously

“The brain’s negativity bias was useful to Felix Baumgartner’s hunter-gatherer ancestors, but it wasn’t doing him any favors when his heartbeat quickened at the sight of the lake or at the smell of the rubber seal in his helmet. To make the jump from the stratosphere, Felix somehow had to master his gut fears, to control his amygdala, and short-circuit the fight-or-flight response in his autonomic nervous system. He’d thought he could do it himself, but he needed help from someone who understood the mind thing.”

According to Tierney and Baumeister, two principles underpinned the strategies that ultimately helped Felix Baumgartner face his fears and complete his mission: “thinking well and breathing well”.

Constructive thinking helps the pre-frontal cortex keep the pervasive negativity of the other brain systems at bay, while conscious breathing assists the parasympathetic nervous system to intercept an instinctive flee or fight response. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, these two principles are also key when helping an inexperienced witness prepare to give evidence.  

The Witness and the Sound Barrier

The fear of the courtroom

The courtroom environment is foreign and its time-honoured rituals are often incomprehensible to most people. Many witnesses also struggle to think quickly and answer accurately when put under the stress of a spotlight, with those difficulties increasing multi-fold once the combativeness of cross examination is factored-in.

Neurologically-speaking then, a witness entering the adversarial arena of a courtroom and a thrill-seeker at the outer reach of human limitations are rather like kindred spirits. 

Facing the courtroom demons

By “thinking well”, witnesses can at least overcome the fear of the unknown. As fear inhabits a vacuum, people become more emboldened simply by gaining knowledge and better understanding of the order of things; the expectations of them in their role as witness; what and how to prepare; and the purpose of cross examination and its techniques.

Enhanced self-awareness around triggers and vulnerabilities and other practical coping strategies help people to self-manage within the peculiar confines of a witness box. By “breathing well”, their ability to tell their truth is more immune to the sabotaging fears that are fuelled by lack of confidence and self-doubt.

The courtroom fear factor, exacerbated by the imperatives of cross examination, can also be likened to a sound barrier that impedes witnesses from telling their stories properly. While us mere mortals may not identify with one man’s seemingly superhuman quest to defy the laws of nature, the more human side to this tale keeps it real and serves as a metaphor for confronting life’s less extraordinary challenges. Like “Fearless Felix”, witnesses can be helped with “the mind thing”; once able to crack their personal sound barriers, they are then freer to deliver cogent, credible evidence in court.