Editor's note: 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.
Here's how it is: one minute, you're going through your daily routine, only half paying attention. And the next you're sucked into a vivid, intense world, where time seems to move slower, colors are brighter, sounds more perceptible, as though the whole universe has suddenly come into focus.
It was about 8:30 P.M. on a warm summer evening in Tucson. Tom Boyle, Jr., was sitting in the passenger's seat of his pickup truck, his wife Elizabeth at the wheel, waiting to pull out into traffic from the shopping mall where they'd just had dinner. The Camaro ahead of them hit the gas, spun his wheels, and jerked out onto the avenue with a squeal of rubber. "Oh my God," Elizabeth said. "Do you see that?"
Boyle glanced up to see a shower of red sparks flying up from beneath the chassis of the Camaro. And something else: A bike, folded up from impact. The Camaro had hit a cyclist, and the rider was pinned underneath the car. Boyle threw open the door of the truck and started running after the car.
For a few gruesome seconds, the Camaro plunged on, dragging along the rider, 18-year-old Kyle Holtrust, with it. One of Holtrust's legs was pinned between chassis of the car and the frame of his bike, the other jammed between the bike and the asphalt. After 20 or 30 feet, the Camaro slowed and stopped. Holtrust screamed in agony, pounding on the side of the car with his free hand.
Without stopping to think, Boyle reached under the frame of the car and lifted. With a sound of groaning metal, the chassis eased upward a few inches. "Mister, mister, higher, higher," Holtrust screamed.
Boyle braced himself, took a deep breath, and heaved. The front end lifted a few more inches. "'OK, it's off me," they boy called out, his voice tight with pain. "But I can't move. Get me out!" The driver of the car, 40-year-old John Baggett, pulled Holtrust free. At last, about 45 seconds after he'd first heaved the car upward, Boyle set it back down.
The biker was badly hurt, in a lot of pain, and frightened. Blood was pouring out of his wounds. Boyle knelt down and wrapped the young man in his arms, comforting him until the police and fire department arrived.
The local media celebrated Boyle's feat of compassion. The YMCA gave him an award. Newspapers and TV stations interviewed him. The fanfare flattered him and he felt extremely proud of himself. Yet to this day there's something about that evening that he can't figure out. It's no mystery to him why he did what he did—"I would be such a horrible human being to watch someone suffer like that and not even try to help," he says—but he can't quite figure out how.
"There's no way I could lift that car right now," he says.
Boyle, it should be pointed out, is no pantywaist. He carries 280 pounds on a six-foot-four-inch frame. But think about this: The heaviest barbell that Boyle ever dead-lifted weighed 700 pounds. The world record is 1,008 pounds. A stock Camaro weighs 3,000 pounds. Even factoring leverage, something extraordinary was going on that night.