The Jeff Wise Blog

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

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 on the magazine’s website. 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 dead-lifting a barbell is 1,003 pounds. A stock Camaro weighs 3000 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!

Filed under: Mastering Fear

2 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Wells and Sarah Wells, Jeff Wise. Jeff Wise said: Yes, You Really Can Lift a Car Off a Trapped Child http://bit.ly/9OX4pQ how the #fear response gives us extraordinary powers […]

  2. Computational Neuroscientist says:

    The framing of the feat in this post is misleading. “The world record for dead-lifting a barbell is 1,003 pounds. A stock Camaro weighs 3000 pounds. So how did Boyle pull it off?” Lifting part of a car off the ground to free someone trapped beneath is not equivalent to dead lifting a car, although the construction suggests that it these are identical acts. Dead lifting might be defined as the act of completely separating a weight from the ground, whereas lifting a car up to free someone trapped beneath need not entail completely lifting the car off the ground; 2 or 3 wheels would have remained in contact with the ground, turning the car into a lever of sorts, which requires much different force characteristics than does dead lifting. In effect, it is extremely unlikely that the man lifted 3000 lbs, although his rescue effort did require an extraordinary feat of strength.

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise

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