Unleash Your Superpowers

Before he even knew what he was doing, Tom Boyle Jr. was out of the truck and running. He'd been in the front seat of a pickup with his wife, feeling relaxed after a dinner at a Tucson mall, waiting for the line of cars in front of them to make a right turn out of the parking lot. The Camaro at the front of the queue lurched into the street, wheels squealing, and roared away trailing sparks.

"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.

The young man was bleeding badly. Boyle held him in his arms until the ambulance came. Then he sat on the curb, drained. He felt like he was going to throw up. He asked his wife to drive him home.

Today, looking back on that frightening evening, Boyle is deeply proud of how he helped the injured cyclist. But the one thing he still can't figure out is how he managed to lift the car. He's a strong guy, sure. But a Camaro weighs over a ton. "Today, right now," he says, "There's no way I could lift that car."

Boyle suddenly found himself in a zone that he had never before encountered. Thrust into the intensity of a life-or-death crisis, he experienced an ancient and automatic resolve. So strong is this force, so alien to our normal conscious experience, that those who experience it report that it's like being possessed.

Most of us tend to think of fear as a negative, as something to be avoided. But fear can have powerfully positive effects as well. The emotion is evolution's way of keeping us safe in the face of danger. When awakened, it can unleash abilities we never knew we had, unlocking reserves that are otherwise hidden. Fear pulls out the stops, turning the dial, as Spinal Tap would have it, all the way up to 11.

Even low levels of fear can have a positive effect. A century ago, physiologists recognized that we tend to do better at a given task as the intensity of the challenge increases. Eventually we reach a performance maximum, beyond which our abilities begin to degrade. Taken together, these performance trends yield an inverted-U shape, known to psychologists as the Yerkes-Dodson law. Just when the peak occurs depends not only on the person but on the skill involved.

Figuring out how to maximize performance in the face of fear and other forms of stress is a hot area of study right now. Understanding fear's secret super powers can help you gain the upper hand when the chips are down.

1 Response

Millions of years ago, our ancestors lived in a world in which danger was ever- present. Wild animals, natural disasters, rival clans—death could come at any time. Humans needed a danger-response system that was fast and vigorous.

Today, that same system remains with us, silently monitoring our environments. As sensory information enters the brain, it splits into two paths. One feeds into consciousness, where we can observe and remember it. The other flows through the subconscious, where a region called the amygdala filters it for signs of danger. When a match is found, the amygdala can trigger an automatic response so quickly that we might respond before we're consciously aware that there's a problem.

Tom Bittner was in the furnace room of a retirement home a few years back, looking at merchandise that was going to go on sale at an auction later that day, when the old wooden floor suddenly gave way beneath his feet. Before he even understood what was happening, he had thrown out his arms to catch himself from falling down what turned out to be a forgotten well shaft. "I did it without thinking about it at all," he says. "I don't understand how I managed it."

While it takes about half a second for awareness of an outside event to enter consciousness, the fear system can begin responding in much less time. New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who has spent his career elucidating the amygdala's pathways, says that the region can receive signals from the ears and eyes in just twelve-thousandths of a second.

What happens next depends on the situation. If the danger is immediate, a person might run or fight. If it's more remote, the reaction might be to freeze. Then, once consciousness kicks in, it becomes possible to counteract the brain's automatic response. You might freeze at the sight of an angry dog rushing toward you, then relax when you realize that it's on the other side of a fence.

Tom Boyle Jr.'s ability to lift a car might seem superhuman, but in fact it makes physiological sense.

Fine motor skills (used to thread a needle or put a key in a lock) tend to decline when we're under pressure. But gross motor skills (used to run or jump) peak much later, if at all: The closer a bear is nipping at your heels, the faster you'll run.

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