The following is an excerpt from Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger by Jeff Wise, published on December 8 by Palgrave Macmillan (Scientific American is a Macmillan publication). Extreme Fear explores the neural underpinnings of this powerful and primitive emotion by relating instances in which people were forced to act under duress and presenting the latest findings from cognitive science. In the following passage from the chapter
entitled “Superhuman” a seemingly ordinary man performs an extraordinary feat of strength to rescue a cyclist who has been run over by a car.
Under acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for sustained, vigorous action. The adrenal gland dumps cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream. Blood pressure surges and the heart races, delivering oxygen and energy to the muscles. It’s the biological equivalent of opening the throttle of an engine.
Vladimir Zatsiorsky, a professor of kinesiology at Penn State who has extensively studied the biomechanics of weightlifting, draws the distinction between the force that our muscles are able to theoretically apply, which he calls “absolute strength,” and the maximum force that they can generate through the conscious exertion of will, which he calls “maximal strength.” An ordinary person, he has found, can only summon about 65 percent of their absolute power in a training session, while a trained weightlifter can exceed 80 percent.
Under conditions of competition a trained athlete can improve as much as 12 percent above that figure. Zatsiorsky calls this higher level of performance “competitive maximum strength.” This parameter is not a fixed number—the more intense the competition, the higher it can go, as the brain’s fear centers progressively remove any restraint against performance.
It’s no coincidence that world records in athletic events tend to get broken at major events like the Olympics, where the stakes are highest and the pressure is the greatest. Of the eight gold medals that Michael Phelps won at the 2008 Olympics, for instance, seven were world records. Not only that, but when he crossed the finish line in the men’s 100-meter butterfly in 50.58 seconds, breaking the previous Olympic record, three of the other seven swimmers who finished after him also came in ahead of the previous record.
But there’s a limit 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 for so long that many of us assume 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 no way to exceed it. A 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 3,000-pound car. Tom Boyle was an experienced weight lifter. The adrenaline of that June night gave him an edge, but it didn’t turn him into the Incredible Hulk.
The mechanisms by which the brain is able to summon greater reserves of power have not been well explored, but it may be related to another of fear’s superpowers: analgesia, or the inability to feel pain. When I’m at the gym, straining to complete the last rep of a dumbbell exercise, it’s pretty hard to imagine that my muscles have the capacity to work half again harder than they already are. What I feel is screaming agony.
But under intense pressure—whether it’s a bodybuilding competition, a kid trapped under a car, or an attacking bear—you just won’t feel that pain. The body pulls out all the stops and lets you turn up the dial up to “11”. You don’t feel the ache of your muscles. You don’t feel the pain. You just do what needs to be done.