The living dead are often depicted as ravenous, bloodthirsty monsters capable of almost superhuman feats of violence. They bite through bone and rip their victims wide open with bare hands. While most of our research show that the undead will actually rot and decay, this idea is so prevalent that we decided to take a closer look at the strength of the undead.

Because such strength almost certainly requires muscle tissue, any dangerous or violent actions must occur during the early stages of infection. But even the most healthy human is limited in their abilities, so what could possibly provide zombies with the extra edge to commit these heinous acts of savagery? Let’s consider the concept of hysterical strength.

There are multiple stories of women and children single-handedly lifting vehicles to rescue family members. And in almost all these cases, this ability is the result of hysterical strength. Though supporting evidence is scarce, such strength is commonly attributed to increased adrenaline production. HowStuffWorks describes the effects in this article by Josh Clark.

…adrenaline’s effect on muscles accounts for amazing strength. Adrenaline acts on muscles, allowing them to contract more than they can when the body is in a calm or neutral state. Adrenaline also facilitates the conversion of the body’s fuel source (glycogen) into its fuel (glucose). This carbohydrate gives energy to muscles, and a sudden burst of glucose also allows muscles to strengthen further.

So does this mean that we have superhuman strength that is unlocked when we’re confronted with danger? That’s one way to put it.

In his book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, author Jeff Wise believes that hysterical strength may be related to another of fear’s superpowers: analgesia, or the inability to feel pain. This comes close to explaining both the strength and unrelenting nature of the undead. But perhaps even more relevant is a dangerous condition known as excited delirium.

Excited delirium, or agitated delirium, is also believed to involve dysfunction of the dopamine system in the brain and is characterized by violent outbursts, hyper-aggression, psychotic behavior, and hallucinations in addition to the superhuman strength previously mentioned.

Obviously these symptoms are closely aligned with our definition of the modern zombie as a relentlessly aggressive, reanimated human corpse driven by a biological infection. The idea of a zombie in the throes of some violent, delirious episode due to the effects of adrenaline or dopamine could easily explain their deadly and savage nature; the link is almost undeniable!

But to learn more about hysterical strength, excited delirium, and its dangerous effects on the psychology and physiology of the human body, living or undead, please check out this article from Scientific American, or visit ScienceDirect for even more great information.

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