We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.
—Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Dennis Rogers is an unassuming guy. He's on the short side. And though muscular, he doesn't come across as the kind of towering Venice Beach, muscle-bound Arnold that you might expect from someone billed as the World's Strongest Man. Rather he has the kind of avuncular intensity you find in a great automobile mechanic—a mechanic who happens to be able to lift an engine with one hand while using the fingertips of the other hand to wrench the spark plugs out. Like it's nothing. Rogers, who has been known to keep two U.S. Air Force fighter planes from blasting away in opposite directions by holding them back with his bare hands, performed at the most recent Gathering for Gardner—a conference that celebrates the interests of one of Scientific American's greatest columnists, the late mathemagician Martin Gardner. We asked Rogers about the source of his incredible powers after the show, and we were surprised to learn that he did not know. Bill Amonette of the University of Houston–Clear Lake found that Rogers could recruit an abnormally high number of muscle fibers. But was this ability because of a freak genetic mutation? Another possibility, which Rogers thinks is more likely, is the way he processes pain when he strains those muscles.
What if, instead of superpowered muscles, Rogers has a normal—though extremely well exercised—body, and his abilities arise because he can withstand more pain than most mere mortals? He claims that he does feel pain and is actually scared of dentists. In fact, during one stunt in which he held back four souped-up Harley motorbikes with straps, he bit down so hard he split a tooth from top to bottom. Rather than taking his chances at the dentist, he reached into his mouth, clamped his viselike fingertips onto the broken tooth, and extracted it, root and all.
Rogers reasons that, unlike in the dentist's office—where he has no control over the pain that is inflicted on him—he has direct executive control over pain that he inflicts on himself. “I know it's coming, I have an idea of what to expect and I can decide to ignore it,” he says. Confronted with severe pain, most people fear that they will damage their body permanently if they persist, so they stop well before they are in real danger, Rogers explains. He does not stop and only rarely gets seriously hurt.
Maybe Rogers's muscle cells are normal, and he experiences pain as most of us do but chooses to disregard it when he feels in command. If so, he has become strong not because he was born on a planet with a red sun like Superman or was trained in the Danger Room of Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters like an X-Man but because, when he has a job to do, he doesn't care that it hurts.
An illusion is a perception that does not match the physical reality. Is pain, then, as with illusions, a mind construct that some people can decide to turn off? As you will see in the studies that follow, pain varies as a function of mood, attentiveness and circumstances, lending support to the theory that pain is an emotion. These studies show that empathy also extends to pain, just as it does to other emotions, even when the victims are fake strangers. And the research indicates that people can experience pain for the wrong reasons or fail to experience it when it would be very reasonable to do so. Moreover, when pain is disconnected from the physical reality, it is an illusion, too.