Over a late summer dinner this past July, my fiancé and I somehow got on the topic of supernatural strength. As a researcher in neuropsychology (and an avid weightlifter), the concept has fascinated me for quite some time. After she took a bite of her baked salmon, she leaned forward in her chair and told me about one experience she had some years ago that still stands out strongly in her mind:
“Well, I’m not sure if this has anything to do with it, but, a few years ago, I went on a trip to Cape Town, South Africa, with the family, and I can vividly remember one dreadfully hot afternoon during a heat wave. I was napping on the beach when all of a sudden I heard the shrieking cry of a child.”
“I sprung up off my towel and spotted a little girl about 10 meters away from me, alone, sunburnt, and slumped over in fatigue. Without anything to cover my feet, I jumped off my towel and ran over to the little girl. She struggled through her tears to tell me that she had been walking alone for hours along the hot sand looking for her mother. I looked down to see her feet were red and covered with blisters. The temperature that day was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sand must have been at least 115. I felt it already burning through the calluses of my feet after just a few seconds. I instinctively picked up the little girl and decided to run with her in my arms all the way to a service station situated on a sandy dune about 300 meters away inland.”
“As I ran, the girl was crying in my ears and I could feel this ‘buzz’ throughout my entire body — there was so much adrenaline pumping through me that I didn’t even feel the burning heat of the sand; in fact, it felt like I was walking on cool, smooth rocks. When I got to the service station, I explained the situation to the beach patrol, and they took care of the little girl and were able to finally locate her mother. Soon the ‘buzz’ wore off. And as I stepped back onto the beach with my bare feet to make my way back to the towel, I truly felt the heat of the sand. It was scorching. In fact, I had to buy sandals right then and there. I wonder how I was ever able to do that.”
She shrugged her shoulders and continued eating her salmon as I leaned back to contemplate what did in fact occur that day. How was her body able to resource the strength, endurance, stamina, and will of mind to carry a child across 115-degree sand and not feel the slightest pain or exhaustion? Does there exist a neural network within the brain associated with producing superhuman strength, and if so, can it be driven by various emotions such as anger, fear, or compassion?
Are only certain people — Olympic athletes, soldiers, or in this case, my Norwegian-born fiancé — able to engage in such supernatural behaviors? In order to understand the neurobiological framework of superhuman strength I needed to understand the tales, myths, and folklore that have surrounded this phenomenon for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And what better place is there to begin my research into the production of brute strength than Norway?
Tales of superhuman strength, also referred to as hysterical strength, can be found in many ancient Norse sagas dating from the late ninth century. Elite Scandinavian warriors, known as berserkers (a term derived from the Old Norse berserkr), were known to enter battle with an untamable, trance-like fury resulting in spurts of superhuman strength as they slayed their enemies. The 13th century Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson refers to berserkers in his “Ynglinga” saga as men who “rushed forwards without armor, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them. This was called Berserkergang.”
If we fast-forward about 750 years to the work of Dr. Jonathan Shay — clinical psychiatrist and an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder — we can see that the onset of superhuman strength caused by berserker behavior is still prevalent among modern-day soldiers.
In his book “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” Shay not only sees the berserker state as a transformative state of heightened awareness and strength, but also as a destructive condition which many returning combat veterans suffer with: “If a soldier survives the berserk state, it imparts emotional deadness and vulnerability to explosive rage to his psychology and permanent hyper arousal to his physiology — hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. My clinical experience with Vietnam combat veterans prompts me to place the berserk state at the heart of their most severe psychological and psychophysiological injuries.”
The psychopharmacological synthesis of superhuman strength was widely prevalent even during World War II, when both the Allied and Axis forces issued amphetamine and methamphetamine, two potent central nervous system stimulants shown to enhance strength and endurance in soldiers who went on long excursions in the field. An investigation published in 2013 by Drs. David G. Liddle and Douglas J. Connor of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, titled “Nutritional Supplements and Ergogenic Aids,” describes how low doses of performance-enhancing amphetamines ingested orally can have broad spectrum effects upon various neural networks associated with increased alertness, improved focus, decreased reaction time, and delayed fatigue. But it seems that soldiers either fighting in angry delirium or taking amphetamines are not the only types of people who can produce such extraordinary bouts of superhuman strength.
In his book “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,” author Jeff Wise describes how fear, not anger, can be an instigator of developing moments of superhuman strength. In the chapter titled “Superhuman,” Wise tells the story of Tom Boyle Jr., a man from Tucson, Arizona, who, on a warm summer evening in 2006, witnessed a Chevrolet Camaro smash into an 18-year-old cyclist named Kyle Holtrust. The Camaro had hit Holtrust so hard that it pinned his leg and dragged him, along with his bike, nearly 30 feet down the highway. Boyle ran after the Camaro and, upon reaching the wreck, he instantly reached under the frame of the car and lifted it.