Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief

Dropping the F-bomb or other expletives may not only be an expression of agony, but also a means to alleviate it

By Frederik Joelving

Bad language could be good for you, a new study shows. For the first time, psychologists have found that swearing may serve an important function in relieving pain.
The study, published today in the journal NeuroReport, measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the chilly exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer.
Although cursing is notoriously decried in the public debate, researchers are now beginning to question the idea that the phenomenon is all bad. "Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it," says psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England, who led the study. And indeed, the findings point to one possible benefit: "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear," he adds.
How swearing achieves its physical effects is unclear, but the researchers speculate that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved. Earlier studies have shown that unlike normal language, which relies on the outer few millimetres in the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives hinge on evolutionarily ancient structures buried deep inside the right half.
One such structure is the amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons that can trigger a fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain. Indeed, the students’ heart rates rose when they swore, a fact the researchers say suggests that the amygdala was activated.
That explanation is backed by other experts in the field. Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University, whose book The Stuff of Thought (Viking Adult, 2007) includes a detailed analysis of swearing, compared the situation with what happens in the brain of a cat that somebody accidentally sits on. "I suspect that swearing taps into a defensive reflex in which an animal that is suddenly injured or confined erupts in a furious struggle, accompanied by an angry vocalization, to startle and intimidate an attacker," he says.
But cursing is more than just aggression, explains Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has studied our use of profanities for the past 35 years. "It allows us to vent or express anger, joy, surprise, happiness," he remarks. "It’s like the horn on your car, you can do a lot of things with that, it’s built into you."
In extreme cases, the hotline to the brain’s emotional system can make swearing harmful, as when road rage escalates into physical violence. But when the hammer slips, some well-chosen swearwords might help dull the pain.
There is a catch, though: The more we swear, the less emotionally potent the words become, Stephens cautions. And without emotion, all that is left of a swearword is the word itself, unlikely to soothe anyone’s pain.

I knew I had an excuse.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief

  1. Totally thought provoking. I think a difference between swearing, generally, and invocation of curses, with understanding of varying and variable cultural acceptance. Wonder how study would work if individuals just said, ‘O Fudge’ rather than F-bombing? Is it the actual words or just expression of pain allowed? Oh, drat, a disruption whilst I sneak a few moments in blogland. Big Smiles. Boiled too many eggs for potatoe salad. How long will they keep in the fridge ChefPenn?

  2. penelopephoebe

    Hiya Happy. I don’t suppose it matters which words are used; more the vehemence with which they are said.
    As for eggs, I would only keep them if they were still in their shells and that could be for up to a week. I trust you had a wonderful weekend.

  3. Yah, thinking, yah agree, release of venom/poison with whatever means of exhalation possible Good Night Penny. I’ll date eggs with a felt marker.

  4. Er, how porous? LOL
    They are all eaten. But porosity is reason they tasted like cheezecake and onions?

    Just hoping UR well with tests and such?

    Re. publication. We are published via our blogs and I am mulling and musing and thinking what further publication? Some of the small Canadian journals do have about the same circulation as some blogs. This is disconcerting. Perhaps just would be nice to see one’s name on a cover page?

    Am tired. Warm in YVR. Fans dehydrating the atmosphere. There was 0.6 of rain in YVR for all of July. It’s just too little humidity for me. I would like a good rainy day.

    Big Smiles

    • Hiya Happy. Results from biopsy not back yet.
      Did you take a look at Red Bubble? Worth a look, I feel. They do something with publishing, I think. Hope the weather cools for you.

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