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Yes, You Really Can Lift a Car Off a Trapped Child

The science behind seemingly impossible feats of strength.

This month's issue of Psychology Today includes my article "Stealth Superpowers" about how the brain's automatic fear-response systems can unleash hidden mental and physical abilities. A portion of the article is now online. The excerpt tells the story of Tom Boyle, Jr, a man who quite suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the middle of a life-or-death drama:

"Oh God, do you see that?" his wife said.

Boyle saw it: the crumpled frame of a bike under the car's bumper, and tangled within it a boy, trapped. That's when Boyle got out and started running. For an agonizing eternity the Camaro screeched on, dragging the mass under it. As it slowed to a stop he could hear the bicyclist pounding on the car with his free hand, screaming. Without hesitating Boyle bent down, grabbed the bottom of the chassis, and lifted with everything he had. Slowly, the car's frame rose a few inches. The bicyclist screamed for him to keep lifting. Boyle strained. "It's off me!" the boy yelled. Someone pulled him free, and Boyle let the car back down.

As I write in the story, Boyle accomplished an almost unthinkable feat of strength. The world record for deadlifting a barbell is 1,003 pounds. A stock Camaro weighs 3,000 pounds. So how did Boyle pull it off? Here's how I explain it in the story:

Human beings have two basic kinds of physical ability: gross-motor skills involving large muscles, like running, punching, and jumping, and fine-motor skills involving small muscles, like threading a needle, writing, or putting a key in a lock. Fine motor skills tend to decline quickly when we're under pressure. But gross-motor skills peak much later, if at all: the closer a bear is nipping at your heels, the faster you'll run.

Penn State Kinesiologist Vladimir Zatsiorsky has researched how stress affects the performance of weightlifters. He has found that most of us, if we try to lift a heavy object under ordinary circumstances, can only use about 65 percent of our muscles' maximum theoretical strength. Trained weightlifters can do a bit better, achieving about 80 percent. In essence we possess an automatic control system that limits the amount of strain we can put on our body's machinery, so that we don't injure unnecessarily.

But as the situation becomes more critical, it may become worth risking some injury, and so that limit automatically lifts upwards. Under the pressure of competition, Zatsiorsky a trained weightlifter can heft up to an additional 12 percent.

There's a limit, however, to how fast and how strong fear can make us. We've all heard stories about panicked mothers lifting cars off their trapped babies. They've been circulating so widely, for so long, that a great many people I've talked to have sworn up and down that they must be true. Zatsiorsky's work, however, suggests that while fear can indeed motivate us to approach more closely to our absolute power level than even the fiercest competition, there's simply no way to exceed it. A 100-pound woman who can lift 100 pounds at the gym might, according to Zatsiorsky, be able to lift 135 pounds in a frenzy of maternal fear. But she's not going to suddenly be able to lift a 3000-pound car.

How does the body unleash these reserves? The answer might lie in another, related aspect of the fear response: it deadens pain. Among the chemicals that the brain releases when under acute stress are two kinds, endocannabinoids and opiods, that are powerful analgesics. Their painkilling effects override the aching feeling we normally get when we try to lift heavy weights.

Unfortunately, the effect is temporary. After Boyle went home, the painkilling properties wore off, and he realized that he'd clenched his jaw so hard while lifting that he'd shattered eight teeth.

In the full article, I describe the science behind four other amazing abilities that fear can give us: speed, focus, courage, and the perception of time. If you haven't already, I'd encourage you to pick up a copy—or better yet, subscribe!

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