We’ve all heard the fantastic stories of hysterical strength: mothers lifting cars off babies, strangers saving accident victims from explosions by lifting metal beams, and even heroic soldiers lifting seemingly impossibly heavy objects to save fellow brothers and sisters in arms. Based on anecdotal evidence, at least, it seems like there is no doubt that these events happen, if not very often. But what’s the science on hysterical strength? Can it really be real?
The Science of Hysterical Strength
Hysterical strength is the formal name given to the extreme, almost superhuman strength people demonstrate in life or death situations. The thought is that the fear and the pressure of the situation imbues the person with abilities beyond their normally possible strength. Despite the many stories of feats of hysterical strength that circulate the internet, though, many doctors and scientists say it’s impossible. So what is the truth?
Obviously, there is no way to easily test for hysterical strength in a lab. After all, creating a life or death situation and requiring a person to help is dangerous and unethical. That’s why all actual evidence of hysterical strength is anecdotal and frustratingly lacking. While there are, of course, many stories of this kind of superhuman strength, most of them are vague and difficult to pin down the exact origin. Still, other examples are easier to back up. One of the most famous examples would be the actions of Tom Boyle Jr. in Arizona in 2006. Boyle was in his car when he witnessed a Camaro hit a cyclist and pin the teenage boy underneath. Hearing the anguished cries for help, Boyle heroically ran out to help and ultimately lifted the 3,000 pound car off the boy for almost a minute so that he could be pulled out by one of the many other witnesses.
Even with leverage playing a part and the fact that Boyle was an experienced weight trainer, the story is almost unbelievable, as Boyle had never dead-lifted more than 700 lbs before. In fact, the world record dead-lift is 1,008 lbs. Clearly, something else was at play: adrenaline.
When in a harrowing situation like Boyle was, adrenaline takes over. Our bodies no longer process information to consciously decide how to react. Instead, the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, increasing our capability to do things we normally could not. This raises our heart rate, dilates our pupils, increases our respiration, and, most importantly, allows our muscles to contract more than they normally would. Not only does muscle twitch increase under intense pressure, but our fear also unleashes reserves of energy that it normally does not access. In addition, the fight response triggers a temporary analgesia, or inability to feel pain. While “superhuman” feats of strength will feel like pure agony at the gym, you are numb to the pain when adrenaline and cortisol are high — at least until the danger passes.
The combined effects of these biological responses makes us undeniably stronger, faster, and more determined than we would be in a regular situation. The average person only uses about 65 percent of his or her strength in a training session, which is why we seem so much stronger when adrenaline pushes us closer to our maximum output. That’s the same reason that athletes perform better when in an important competition– their bodies are working at the ultimate peak of performance. It’s no surprise that so many world records are beat at the Olympics; the pressure of the event gets adrenaline pumping high.
Is It Real?
Ultimately, it’s impossible to say how real the phenomenon of hysterical strength is. Although it’s clear that we are stronger than normal when in life or death situations or under intense pressure, there are limits. According to Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a Penn State professor who studies the biomechanics of weightlifting, it is simply impossible to exceed our absolute power level. A woman who can lift about 120 pounds in the gym could definitely lift more weight than usual if her child was in danger, but she could never lift a 3,000 lb car.
It seems that there is evidence that hysterical strength does exist to an extent, but there are limits. It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as “superhuman” strength; we simply can push past normal limits to our ultimate strength.
If you’re interested in learning more about human biology, the science of the body, and the limits of our physiology, check out the Brainscape Biology subject today!
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