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%#$!? Swearing may actually reduce pain

July 12, 2009
Courtesy 
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists have found to their sur­prise that peo­ple can tol­er­ate pain bet­ter when they curse.

The re­search­ers at Keele Un­ivers­ity, U.K. be­gan a study as­sum­ing the op­posite—that swear­ing would make suf­fer­ers feel worse, by mak­ing the pain seem a big­ger deal than it really is.

In­stead the sci­en­tists, Rich­ard Ste­phens and col­leagues, found that the same ver­bal bombs that might make by­standers un­com­fort­a­ble could leave the af­flicted feel­ing a lit­tle more soothed.

The re­search­ers asked 64 col­lege stu­dent vol­un­teers to put their hand in ice wa­ter for as long as pos­si­ble while re­peat­ing a swear word of their choice. They were lat­er asked to re­peat the ex­pe­ri­ment, this time us­ing a more com­mon­place word that they would use to de­scribe a ta­ble. 

The vol­un­teers were able to keep their hands in the cold depths long­er in the first situa­t­ion, the in­vest­i­ga­tors re­ported.

The pain-lessening ef­fect might oc­cur be­cause swear­ing trig­gers our nat­u­ral “fight-or-flight“ re­sponse which down­plays fee­ble­ness in fa­vor of a more pain-tolerant ma­chis­mo, the sci­en­tists said. Swear­ing trig­gers not only an emo­tion­al re­sponse, but a phys­i­cal one too, which may ex­plain why the cen­turies-old prac­tice of curs­ing de­vel­oped and still per­sists, they added.

“Swear­ing has been around for cen­turies and is an al­most un­iver­sal hu­man lin­guis­tic phe­nom­e­non. It taps in­to emo­tion­al brain cen­tres and ap­pears to arise in the right brain, where­as most lan­guage pro­duc­tion oc­curs in the left cer­e­bral hem­i­sphere of the brain. Our re­search shows one po­ten­tial rea­son why swear­ing de­vel­oped and why it per­sists,” Ste­phens said.

The study is published in the research journal NeuroReport.


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Scientists have found to their surprise that people can tolerate pain better when they curse. The researchers at Keele University, U.K. began a study assuming the opposite—that swearing would make the sufferers feel worse, by making the pain seem a bigger deal than it really is. Instead the scientists, Richard Stephens and colleagues, found that the same verbal bombs that might make bystanders uncomfortable could leave the afflicted feeling a little more soothed. The researchers asked 64 college student volunteers to submerge their hand ice water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice. They were later asked to repeat the experiment, this time using a more commonplace word that they would use to describe a table. The volunteers were able to keep their hands in the cold depths longer in the first situation. The pain-lessening effect might occur because swearing triggers our natural “fight-or-flight“ response which downplays feebleness in favor of a more pain-tolerant machismo, the scientists said. Swearing triggers not only an emotional response, but a physical one too, which may explain why the centuries-old practice of cursing developed and still persists today, according to the investigators. “Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon. It taps into emotional brain centres and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain. Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists,“ Stephens said.