Hysterical strength refers to a display of extreme physical strength by humans, beyond what is believed to be normal, usually occurring when people are in, or perceive themselves to be in life-or-death situations.[1][2] It was also reported to be present during situations of altered states of consciousness, such as trance and alleged possession. Its description is mostly based on anecdotal evidence.

The name refers to hysteria, a nosological category that included bouts of superhuman strength as one of the possible symptoms, but in Europe this had also been an attribution in previous cases of alleged demonic possession.[3][4][5] Charcot imputed to the phase of hysterical attacks called clownism the presence of strength and agility not consistent with the age and sex of the person, which before in the Catholic ritual of exorcism was attributed to demonic force. Thus, the cause of the phenomenon began at that time to be addressed by the investigation of insanity.[5] During that period in the 19th century, the term hysterical strength could also be found in the intersection of such fields, scientific and religious, for instance appearing in a statement by a physician for the Society for Psychical Research.[6]

It was also described in reports of trance or possession in several other cultures, as for example in the New Testament (Mark 5:4) or in shamanic practices.[7][8]

Unexpected strength is claimed to occur during excited delirium.[9][10]


The most common anecdotal examples based on hearsay are of parents lifting vehicles to rescue their children, and when people are in life-and-death situations. Periods of increased strength are short-lived, usually no longer than a few minutes, and might lead to muscle injuries and exhaustion later. It is not known if there are any reliable examples of this phenomenon.[citation needed]


See also: Fight-or-flight response

Early experiments showed that adrenaline increases twitch, but not tetanic force and rate of force development in muscles.[38]

One proposed explanation is Tim Noakes' "central governor" theory, which states that higher instances in the central nervous system dynamically and subconsciously control the number of active motor units in the muscle. Normally, in order to guarantee homeostasis, the entire motor neural capacity is not activated and, therefore, the total capacity of the muscle during performances outside of an emergency situation remains inaccessible: this would lead to exhaustion of energy resources and even physical injuries. However, in life-threatening situations, it is adaptive for the central governor limits to be removed or modified.[1] People in high load weightlifting training are able to activate more motor units, which ensures more strength and efficiency in muscle contraction, even though they had the same amount of muscle mass compared to people in low load training.[39]

Exercise physiologist Robert Girandola has pointed out that most cars have a 60/40 weight distribution, as the engine block puts the center of mass slightly towards the front of the car. In most instances, the individual is lifting one or two wheels of the car from the back. Therefore, they are only actually lifting a small fraction of the vehicle's weight. While the fight or flight response allows for increased lifting capacity, it would be hundreds of pounds rather than thousands.[40][41]

See also


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  2. ^ "From the archives: Unlocking the mystery of superhuman strength". ESPN.com. 2 May 2020. Retrieved 12 February 2023.
  3. ^ Levack, Brian (22 April 2013). The Devil Within: Possession & Exorcism in the Christian West. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-19538-5.
  4. ^ Ferber, Sarah (11 January 2013). Demonic Possession and Exorcism: In Early Modern France. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-61520-9.
  5. ^ a b Grossi, Roberta Vittoria (1 June 2020). "Demonic Possession and Religious Scientific Debate in Nineteenth-Century France". In Giordan, Giuseppe; Possamai, Adam (ed.). The Social Scientific Study of Exorcism in Christianity. Springer Nature. pp. 40, 44. ISBN 978-3-030-43173-0.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  6. ^ Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Vol. 7. Society for Psychical Research. 1895.
  7. ^ Keener, Craig S. (2010). "Spirit Possession as a Cross-cultural Experience". Bulletin for Biblical Research. 20 (2): 215–235. doi:10.2307/26424297. ISSN 1065-223X. JSTOR 26424297. S2CID 40571982.
  8. ^ Huiying, Meng (14 February 2011). "Characteristics of Shamanism of the Tungusic Speaking People". In Ma, Xisha; Meng, Huiying (ed.). Popular Religion and Shamanism. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-17455-9.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  9. ^ "White Paper Report on Excited Delirium Syndrome" Archived 11 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine, ACEP Excited Delirium Task Force, American College of Emergency Physicians, 10 September 2009
  10. ^ Sztajnkrycer, Matt D.; Baez, Amado A. (2005). "Cocaine, Excited Delirium and Sudden Unexpected Death" (PDF). Emergency Medical Services. 34 (4): 77–81. PMID 15900873. Retrieved 29 November 2012.
  11. ^ Bell, Christine (23 August 2021). "Ceremonial Attire of the Oracle Priest Sungma Balung chö je". In Tekcan, Münevver; Corff, Oliver (ed.). Expressions of Gender in the Altaic World. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. ISBN 978-3-11-074887-1.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: editors list (link)
  12. ^ Tung, Rosemary Jones (1 January 1996). A Portrait of Lost Tibet. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-20461-4.
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  15. ^ Groth, Gary (23 May 2011). "Jack Kirby Interview - Part 6". The Comics Journal. KIRBY: The Hulk I created when I saw a woman lift a car. Her baby was caught under the running board of this car. The little child was playing in the gutter and he was crawling from the gutter onto the sidewalk under the running board of this car — he was playing in the gutter. His mother was horrified. She looked from the rear window of the car, and this woman in desperation lifted the rear end of the car. From The Comics Journal #134 (February 1990)
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