Saturday, 1 August 2015

Can 'ice' (or any other drug for that matter) really cause 'superhuman strength'?

There are so many urban myths around drugs and drug use, some that have been around for decades. With the continuing interest in methamphetamine (or 'ice') in this country it is not surprising that some of the media commentary that we see in this area contains some so-called 'facts' that are actually based on urban myths that have been disproved time and time again ... One of the classic drug myths repeated in a number of media stories this week was around the ability of 'ice' to give users 'superhuman strength'.

The myth that certain drugs can have this effect goes back to the late 1970s when there were reports of little old ladies who had used a drug called PCP ('angel dust') and had been able to lift up cars. Over the years US media outlets have reported that the same drug enabled users to break free of metal handcuffs (all stories later proven to be completely untrue). Some may remember the Rodney King story where an African American man was beaten by police officers. When they were indicted for the beating the officers claimed that they believed he was high on PCP and that they had heard about the 'superhuman strength' of PCP suspects.

We don't have PCP in this country but we certainly have ice ... On July 30, the Herald Sun newspaper published a story titled 'Ice scourge madness' and included the following quote:

"The drug is having a dangerous impact on frontline members, making criminals more violent and giving them 'superhuman strength' ... In one instance, seven officers were needed to restrain a suspect high on the drug'"

Earlier in the month the Courier Mail had a story that reported "Indigenous women are loading themselves up with the drug ice to get the “superhuman strength” needed to withstand domestic violence" and earlier in the year the Daily Telegraph published an article about the dangers that paramedics were facing with this user group that began as follows:

"Ice users displaying super strength are threatening the lives of paramedics with one revealing it took 12 people to subdue an out of control addict on the Central Coast. The shocking situation took place at Gosford Hospital recently and the 12 people included strongly built paramedics, police officers and security staff and the user weighed only 60kg."

So is it true? Can methamphetamine (or any other drug for that matter) actually give an otherwise 60kg 'weakling' superhuman strength? Have the comic books been true all along?

Firstly, let me make it very clear that I am not dismissing the reports made by police officers, paramedics and emergency department workers that have to deal with ice users. Methamphetamine users are an extremely difficult and potentially dangerous group to work with and frontline workers, whether they be from the law enforcement or health sectors, face the very real threat of injury when they come into contact with them. But can ice actually increase muscle power and give you 'superhuman' (the term most often used in the media) strength? Science says absolutely not - there are no plausible biological mechanisms to explain how any drug could actually achieve this.

So what is happening? If what the police and paramedics are reporting (one media report quoted police as saying that it took 20 officers to control one person affected by ice) is true and the drug is not supplying the muscle power, how does science explain it?

It would appear that there are potentially two possible forces at play here:
  • the inability to experience pain
  • adrenaline
Essentially strength is limited by physical pain (you only have to look at an Olympic weightlifter's face to see how much pain those people are putting themselves through - trying to push past their personal pain barrier to try and lift just a few kilos more). When we start to experience pain our natural human instinct is to stop doing what we're doing and not go past it. After using methamphetamine, particularly when you have been on a binge and are really flying, you are less likely to experience pain. At the same time, drugs like ice also make you feel like you're strong and powerful (you may feel like you're Superman - particularly if you are psychotic) and so when you put these two things together you have the 'perfect storm'. When faced with situations where people are trying to 'control' them in some way (police trying to arrest them or paramedics attempting to assist them), there is the very real possibility that ice users will lash out, become violent and push their body well beyond their usual limitations. Although it may appear that the person has superhuman strength, it's just that no pain signals are reaching their brain and they push past their pain barrier, far further than any sober person could, often causing significant muscle and tendon damage as a result.

We've all heard stories of people in extreme situations being able to do incredible things, often exhibiting unbelievable strength when faced with potential disaster (e.g., small women lifting small cars off people involved in accidents, hikers hoisting boulders off friends, etc). This temporary burst of physical power is called 'hysterical strength' and is explained by an adrenaline rush. When we are faced with sudden stress and/or imminent danger the human body goes into what is often referred to as the 'fight or flight' response. It's our body's way of preparing for physical harm with adrenalin being released into the bloodstream. Adrenaline is responsible for a range of physical changes that attempt to safeguard us from what is about to happen ... it maximizes breathing capacity, fuels muscles preparing them for action, blood flow to vulnerable extremities is decreased and dopamine is produced in the brain as a natural pain killer. Peripheral vision is lost, turning into tunnel vision in an attempt to minimize distractions and reflexes and reaction times are heightened.

Well to some degree this certainly sounds like superhuman strength ... or does it? There's a great well referenced article by Brian Dunning (2011) where he examines this phenomenon and says that "it's only partly true". The fight or flight response and the adrenaline rush can certainly help exceed normal capabilities, but only to a certain point - it doesn't mean that you have 'super powers'!

I believe that what is happening with these ice users who are demonstrating great strength is a combination of these two factors. Almost all of the stories reported involved police or health workers trying to 'control' the user in some way. These are people who are often experiencing psychosis (they are paranoid and hallucinating) and when approached (particularly by law enforcement) they experience a 'fight or flight' response and a burst of adrenaline. If an attempt is made to restrain them in some way (which is often the case), because of their inability to experience pain, they are able to push past their natural threshold. Did ice give them superhuman strength? Absolutely not! Are they out of control, potentially dangerous and incredibly difficult to deal with? Without a doubt!

Police officers and frontline health workers have an extremely difficult job and put themselves at great risk everyday. I do not want to downplay that in anyway ... that said, when we start to use terms like 'superhuman strength' it plays into the media's hands and feeds into the 'moral panic' that we already have around this issue. If you believe everything you read about this drug you honestly would think that it is some type of 'superdrug' - it causes users to gouge their eyes out and eat them, it rots your teeth, makes you age almost overnight and gives you super strength! Most of these effects are based on an element of truth but have been exaggerated or twisted to make a better story ...

If we take a careful look at why ice users behave the way they do and why it can take 6 police officers to subdue a person under the effect of the drug then perhaps we can learn to respond in a more effective way and ensure the safety of the people working on the frontline. Dunning ends his article with the following quote that I believe says it all ...
"The ability to acquire superpowers, even if only temporarily, is such a compelling possibility that most of us really want these stories to be true. And many of them probably are true to some degree, just exaggerated, misreported, or even misinterpreted by those who were there; and so, sadly, they're not yet the confirmation of superpowers that we're hoping for. It's a really intriguing field of research, and an attractive goal. But it's a goal we'll only reach if we go beyond the popularly reported versions of the stories and take the trouble to learn what's really going on."

Reference: Dunning, B. (2011). Superhuman Strength during a Crisis. Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 26 Apr 2011. Accessed 1 August, 2015.

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