Can love infuse us with super strength in emergencies?
We’ve all heard the stories. A young woman lifts a car off of her father after the vehicle slipped off a jack, trapping the man underneath. A bystander witnesses a teenage cyclist get hit by a car and dragged several hundred feet. After the car stops, the bystander lifts the vehicle so the boy can escape. These kinds of situations are more than urban legend and happen more often than we think, but what’s really going on? Scientists agree that these incredible feats come from a phenomenon called hysterical strength. What they’re less certain of is how it happens.
The lack of research into hysterical strength is mostly due ethical reasons. Scientists can’t intentionally put someone in a real life-threatening situation to measure changes in physical strength. Still, strength research on athletes has been able to offer some clues.
It should be noted, however, that in most cases of hysterical strength, the person involved isn’t lifting nearly as much weight as we think. Primarily, they’re using a deadlift style, that means crouching down and grabbing the object or frame of the car and using their legs as leverage to lift it several inches off the ground. The average car weighs about 3,000 lbs. In comparison, the world record for deadlifting, held by Zydrunas Savickas, winner of the World’s Strongest Man and Arnold Strongman Classic competitions, is only 1,155 lbs., and professional athletes like him are required to lift the weight to mid-thigh level. In reality, incidents of hysterical strength involve lifting only part of an object. In the case of a car, it’s usually at the side or rear, where the vehicle weighs considerably less than the front, where the engine is. Even so, this takes nothing away from their courage or accomplishment because people utilizing hysterical strength are still lifting several hundred pounds.
The truth is humans are stronger than we realize, but the body uses the smallest amount of motor units or nerve/muscle fiber interactions to get something done in order to save energy. Regardless of how exhausted we feel afterward, even the most strenuous workout will only use about 60% of our physical strength. Trained athletes can access about 80%. In fact, the reason we feel pain or exhaustion during hard physical work isn’t because we’ve reached our strength limit, but because the brain is signaling us to stop to keep from hurting ourselves. If we used our maximum strength even occasionally, we’d end up seriously damaging our ligaments, tendons, bones, and more. It was previously thought our muscles simply gave out because they couldn’t utilize anymore oxygen, but that’s no longer the case. It’s now understood that while we possess greater strength that we think, it’s the brain that intervenes to keep us from hurting ourselves. Professional athletes have trained themselves to bypass the brain and “push through” the agony to achieve greater gains at times, but even they have not reached their true limit.
In the same way, regular people can force themselves to bypass brain messaging and access greater strength in life or death situations. The greater the motivation to move into action, the greater strength a person can access, and there’s no greater incentive than saving your life or the life of someone you love. In such situations, people have been reported to have accomplished incredible feats during times of war where they would be killed if caught or even run for days without food or water. A Japanese study from 1961 found that a person’s grip strength increased 10% when a harmless starter pistol was fired in the background. The results also showed that strength was increased 15% by shouting or grunting, and 30% by hypnosis.
Of course, the adrenaline rush we receive during high stress moments plays a central role in recruiting huge numbers of additional motor units to make us superhuman for a temporary period of time. It also suppresses our pain sensitivity until we complete our task. In the case of the man who lifted the car off the teenage cyclist, he didn’t realize until later that he’d cracked eight of his teeth from clenching his jaw so hard during the lift. In any case, it’s clear that the key to accessing our super strength is the feeling of intense love or empathy we feel when someone or something important to us is threatened. Who knows, maybe love really can move mountains?
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