We’ve all heard stories of superhuman strength: of moms lifting 3,000 pound cars off their kids to save their lives. We’re told that these stories are absolutely real, and that the phenomenon of superhuman strength is probably the result of adrenaline released by the body in a time of extreme danger or crisis.
Wikipedia catalogues numerous examples of such feats, under the heading of Hysterical Strength:
- In 1982, in Lawrenceville, Georgia, Tony Cavallo was repairing a 1964 Chevrolet Impalaautomobile from underneath. The vehicle was propped up with jacks, but it fell. Cavallo’s mother, Mrs. Angela Cavallo, lifted the car high enough and long enough for two neighbours to replace the jacks and pull Tony from beneath the car.
- In 2006, Ivujivik, Quebec, resident Lydia Angiyou saved several children by fighting a polar bear until a local hunter shot it.
- In 2006, in Tucson, Arizona, Tom Boyle watched as a Chevrolet Camarohit 18-year-old Kyle Holtrust. The car pinned Holtrust, still alive, underneath. Boyle lifted the Camaro off the teenager, while the driver of the car pulled the teen to safety.
- In 2009, in Ottawa, Kansas, 1.70 m (5 ft 7 in), 84 kg (185 lb) Nick Harris lifted a Mercurysedan to help a 6-year-old girl pinned beneath.
- In 2009, in Newport, Wales, Donna McNamee, Abigail Sicolo, and Anthony McNamee lifted a 1.1 ton Renault Cliooff of an 8-year-old boy.
- In 2011, in Tampa, Florida, 1.91 m (6 ft 3 in), 134 kg (295 lb) University of South Florida college football player Danous Estenor lifted a 1,600 kg (3,500 lb) car off of a man who had been caught underneath. The man was a tow truck driver who had been pinned under the rear tire of a 1990 Cadillac Seville, which had lurched forward as he worked underneath it. The man suffered only minor injuries.
- In 2012, in Glen Allen, Virginia, 22-year-old Lauren Kornacki rescued her father, Alec Kornacki, after the jack used to prop up his BMW slipped, pinning him under it. Lauren lifted the car, then performed CPR on her father and saved his life.
- In 2013, in Oregon, teenage sisters Hannah (age 16) and Haylee (age 14) lifted a tractor to save their father pinned underneath.
- In 2015, in John’s, Newfoundland, Nick Williams lifted a four-wheel-drive vehicle to save a young boy pinned beneath its tire.
- In 2015, in Vienna, Virginia, Charlotte Heffelmire lifted a GMC pick-up truck to free her father from underneath.
Wikipedia isn’t clear that adrenaline is responsible for these acts. It’s not clear what exactly is the mechanism behind such superhuman strength, but Wikipedia does state that whatever the cause, it doesn’t protect the muscles from injuries incurred during the events.
Jeff Wise, over at Psychology Today believes there are several forces in play that allow for feats of strength. He says that gross motor skills don’t really peak under pressure. As Wise puts it, “The closer a bear is nipping at your heels, the faster you’ll run.”
Wise believes that fear is definitely a motivating factor in the phenomenon of lifting ridiculously heavy items to save lives. But he also believes that fear has the effect of deadening pain. That means you could be tearing up your muscles like crazy, but don’t really feel it, which is probably a good thing, when you’re saving a life. Only later when the pain-killing effects of fear wear off, do you realize you’ve been injured, that your entire body hurts. That’s when things can get intense.
Take Tom Boyle, for instance. Boyle lifted a car off a boy on a bicycle (see third Wikipedia example above). Only later did he realize that during the act, he’d clenched his jaw so tight he’d broken eight teeth.
Our bodies mask pain to help us do amazing things when the need arises. Which is an absolutely remarkable phenomenon. And some darned intelligent design.