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When Fear Makes Us Superhuman: Scientific American

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.

When Fear Makes Us Superhuman: Scientific American.

32 thoughts on “When Fear Makes Us Superhuman: Scientific American

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  22. During his visit to China in November, for example, President Obama held a town hall meeting with an online component to highlight the importance of the internet. In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. The United States belief in that ground truth is what brings me here today.

    Because amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

    Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
    MODERATOR: Thank you. Thank you, Madame Secretary. The Secretary has agreed to answer some questions. So if you would, there are going to be three microphones in the audience. If you would make your questions short, we’d appreciate it. And identify yourselves, please.

    Yes. Could you wait for the microphone?

    QUESTION: Madame Secretary, you talked about anonymity on line and how that’s something – oh, I’m sorry. I’m Robert (inaudible). I’m with Northern Virginia Community College. I’m sorry.

    STAFF: Could you hold the microphone up, please?

    QUESTION: Sorry.

    STAFF: Thank you.

    QUESTION: You talked about anonymity on line and how we have to prevent that. But you also talk about censorship by governments. And I’m struck by – having a veil of anonymity in certain situations is actually quite beneficial. So are you looking to strike a balance between that and this emphasis on censorship?

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Absolutely. I mean, this is one of the challenges we face. On the one hand, anonymity protects the exploitation of children. And on the other hand, anonymity protects the free expression of opposition to repressive governments. Anonymity allows the theft of intellectual property, but anonymity also permits people to come together in settings that gives them some basis for free expression without identifying themselves.

    None of this will be easy. I think that’s a fair statement. I think, as I said, we all have varying needs and rights and responsibilities. But I think these overriding principles should be our guiding light. We should err on the side of openness and do everything possible to create that, recognizing, as with any rule or any statement of principle, there are going to be exceptions.

    So how we go after this, I think, is now what we’re requesting many of you who are experts in this area to lend your help to us in doing. We need the guidance of technology experts. In my experience, most of them are younger than 40, but not all are younger than 40. And we need the companies that do this, and we need the dissident voices who have actually lived on the front lines so that we can try to work through the best way to make that balance you referred to.

    MODERATOR: Forty may be (inaudible).

    SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.)

    MODERATOR: Right over here. Yes.

    QUESTION: Hi, my name is Courtney Radsch. I’m the Global Freedom of Expression officer at Freedom House. And I wanted to ask you – you spoke about business and relying on them to do the moral, right thing and not put profits first. But the goal of business is to make a profit. So what kind of teeth are going to be put into this? What role does the World Trade Organization play? And how are you going to encourage them to do the right thing?

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, again, I think this is one of the issues that we want to have a very vigorous discussion about. I know that asking business, which is in business to make a profit, to do the right thing is not always easily translated into practical practice. On the other hand, I think there is a broader context here. It’s – companies that don’t follow the sanitary and hygiene procedures of a prior generation pay a price for it. And government and business have to constantly be working together to make sure that the food and other products that end up on the shelves of consumers around the world are safe, because individual consumers in a global interconnected economy can’t possibly exercise that vigilance on their own.

    Similarly, when it comes to censorship, we believe that having an international effort to establish some rules over internet connectivity and trying to protect the basic freedoms I discussed is in the long-term interest of business, and frankly, I would argue, governments. I used the example from the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is very hard to keep information out. It was hard to keep it out at a prior age; it is even harder now. And trying to adjust to that, work with that, and learn from that about what could be done better is going to challenge every single government in the world.

    So I think business, as such a driver of economic growth globally, has to have that in mind, both when they go into countries and when they confront the kind of censorship that we’re hearing about around the world. It’s particularly acute for the technology companies, the media companies obviously, but it’s not in any way limited to them. Other companies are facing censorship as well. So this is an issue that we have to surface and we have to talk about and we have to try to find as much common ground and then keep claiming more common ground as we go forward.

    MODERATOR: We have a question way over here on the left.

    QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Aly Abuzaakouk. I’m the director of Libya Forum website, promoting democracy and human rights and civil society in Libya.

    We have been attacked and hacked many times. I would like Madame Secretary to tell me how can you help those voices which do not have, you know, the technology or the money to protect themselves, protect them against the hackers which are the silencers of voices from outside the countries which lacks freedom and freedom of expression.

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, this is one of the issues that we are debating and we’re looking for ideas as to how we can answer it in a positive way. We would invite your participation. After I take the last question, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Director of my Policy Planning unit inside the State Department and someone – the former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School who has written a lot about interconnectivity and how we have to begin to look at the world as the networked reality that it is, will be leading a discussion. And I hope some of you with ideas, suggestions, cautions, worries will stay and really get into an in-depth discussion about that.

    MODERATOR: Thank you. And right here in the mezzanine, right next to the microphone.

    QUESTION: Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang with BPSOS. We serve Vietnamese Americans and work with Vietnamese in Vietnam. While your initiative will take some time to take effect, just recently, in recent months, the Vietnamese Government sentenced several bloggers to five years all the way to 16 years in prison. So what does your office plan to do, and how the U.S. Government can confront such an emergency situation in Vietnam?

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we have publicly spoken out against the detention, conviction, and imprisonment of not only the bloggers in Vietnam, but some of the Buddhist monks and nuns and others who have been subjected to harassment.

    Vietnam has made so much progress, and it’s just moving with great alacrity into the future, raising the standard of living of their people. And we don’t believe they should be afraid of commentary that is internal. In fact, I would like to see more governments, if you disagree with what a blogger or a website is saying, get in and argue with them. Explain what it is you’re doing. Put out contrary information. Point out what the pitfalls are of the position that a blogger might be taking.

    So I hope that Vietnam will move more in that direction, because I think it goes hand in hand with the progress that we’ve seen in the last few years there.

    MODERATOR: Thank you. Up in the back.

    QUESTION: Nora von Ingersleben with the Association for Competitive Technology. Madame Secretary, you mentioned that U.S. companies have to do the right thing, not just what is good for their profits. But what if I am a U.S. company and I have a subsidiary in China and the Chinese Government is coming after my guys for information and, you know, we have resisted but now my guys have been taken to jail, my equipment is being hauled away. In that situation, what can the State Department do? Or what will the State Department do?

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we obviously speak out on those individual cases. And we are, as I said, hoping to engage in a very candid and constructive conversation with the Chinese Government. We have had a positive year of very open discussions with our Chinese counterparts. I think we have established a foundation of understanding. We disagree on important issues with them. They disagree on important issues with us. They have our perspective; we have our perspective. But obviously, we want to encourage and support increasing openness in China because we believe it will further add to the dynamic growth and the democratization on the local level that we see occurring in China.

    So on individual cases, we continue to speak out. But on the broader set of issues, we hope to really have the kind of discussion that might lead to a better understanding and changes in the approach that is currently being taken.

    MODERATOR: Thank you.

    Up in the very back in the center, if you could come to the aisle so we can get a microphone to you, and then we’ll come back down here. Thank you.

    QUESTION: Imam Mohamed Magid from ADAMS Center in Virginia. My question for you, Madame Secretary: When you talk about social networking, we’re trying to address the issue of youth in the West, Muslim youth. Would you be open to the youth forum to speak about foreign policy? Because one of the reason that youth be radicalized, they don’t have a way to express themselves when they disagree with the United States Government or their own government overseas. Would you be open to those ideas?

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, we would. In fact, we – in the wake of the President’s speech in Cairo, we have been expanding dramatically our outreach, particularly to Muslim youth. I agree with you completely, sir, that not only young people in the Muslim world, but young people across the world are increasingly disconnected from authority, from government, from all kinds of institutions that have been historically the foundations of society, because they are so interconnected through the internet, something that my generation can’t really understand.

    In America, the average young person spends eight hours a day with media. The internet, cell phones, television – I mean, you think about that. Eight hours a day. That’s more time than they spend in school, that’s more time than they spend with their families. It’s often more time than they spend asleep.

    So when you think about the power of this information connection to young people, I don’t think it should cause panic in people my age. I don’t think we should begin trying to stop it and prevent it. We ought to figure out how better to utilize it. You go back to the millennia; how were values passed around? Sitting around a fire, how were values communicated? In the homes by parents and grandparents. Now, values are being communicated by the internet, and we cannot stop it.

    So let’s figure out how better to use it, participate in it, and particularly to focus on the needs of young people. They’re often looking for information. They’re looking for answers. At least until now, in most cultures that I’m aware of, despite all of the time that young people spend with technology, when they’re asked who do they look to for guidance about values, they still say their families. But if families increasingly feel disconnected from their highly connected young people and don’t know what their young people are doing online, then we see the problems that can result.

    And there are so many manipulators online right now, not just stoking the anxieties and the fears of Muslim youth, but youth everywhere, defined by all kinds of characteristics.
    So we have our own work to do, not just through our government but through our families, through our education systems, and every other institution to make sure we understand the power of this technology and to engage with young people through it and about it.

    MODERATOR: I see a lot of hands going up as you speak. Let’s try over here on the far right.
    Yes, the young lady there.

    QUESTION: Thank you very much, Madame Secretary. Bahgi Gilamichael with the Sullivan Foundation. And also, thank you for inviting us to apply for grants. Now I’m interested in knowing what are the procedures, what is the agency we need to deal with, and if you have someone in the room we can follow up with on that? Thank you so much.

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you. Well, in addition to our panel, we have a lot of the members of our team who are working on these initiatives, and we can certainly connect up. If we invited you, we know how to find you. So we will make sure you get information about all of these programs, the ones that already exist and the ones that we’re rolling out.

    MODERATOR: There’s no anonymity in this room. (Laughter.)

    We have actually time for one more question, but I really would encourage you to stay for the panel that Anne-Marie Slaughter will chair on connection technologies and diplomacy immediately following. And I’m sure some of the questions will get answered.

    So let’s do one last question over here on the far left, down below here. Can we get a mike? Thank you.

    QUESTION: Hello. Thank you so much. I appreciated your wonderful program speech. I’m Mary Perkins from Howard University, and at Howard University, we – very much interested in particular aspects of the internet with respect to the digital divide. Or – in your story about the young girl being pulled out of the rubble because of the text message she was able to send brings to mind – the question in my mind, how many others could have been saved had they had that technology?

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Absolutely.

    QUESTION: And so we’re very interested in knowing, in terms of access, the – not only internet freedom but free internet for all, the universal service aspect, and what can be done, particularly right now for Haiti, with this.

    SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as – thank you for that. As you know, that is a continuing issue for us and for many countries around the world. We’re at 4 billion cell phones. And certainly, the cell phone is becoming the principal tool of communication, both through the applications that are on it, through the texting that it enables. And there are a lot of groups, NGOs, and even businesses that are passing out and providing cell phones at very low cost.

    We just have to keep incentivizing and encouraging the technology to be as low cost as possible so it can be as ubiquitous as possible.

    But I think we’ve made enormous progress. Ten years ago, we talked a lot about the digital divide even in our own country. We are overcoming it, but there are still questions of access, still questions of cost. Now, obviously, we have to recognize that a lot of the search engines are run by for-profit companies. They’re not – it’s not going to be free. But there are lots of ways of trying to encourage more universal access. And that’s part of the Obama Administration’s overall policy on technology, not just the diplomatic and development aspects of it.

    Thank you, Professor.

    MODERATOR: Thank you, Madame Secretary. Thank you very much.
    SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you, Alberto. Thank you very much. Thank you. (Applause)

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