Have you ever wondered why swearing seems to be your immediate reaction to pain?
In June 2009, researchers at the Keele University in England sought to determine why the automatic response for so many people in pain is to blurt out swears.
The question at hand was, does simply expressing pain (in a shout, yelp, or cry) make you feel better, or, is it the specific words you choose to yell that helps to lessen pain? Do curse words contain a hidden power that has the ability to help decrease pain?
To answer these questions, researchers found 68 college-aged students and asked each to submerge one hand in icy water for as long as they could possibly stand it. They were trying to test if students could keep their hands submerged longer if they used curse words or non-curse words.
During the first trial, the students were permitted to swear out loud as often as they needed to see if it could lengthen the period of time that the hand could stay submerged.
During the second trial, the students submerged their other hand in the icy water and this time, they were permitted to say whatever they wanted, as long as it did not contain swearing.
(Fact – one reason behind this study was because the head researcher, Richard Stevens of Keele University, heard his wife hollering expletives when she was giving birth. When she apologized afterward, the nurses and doctors shrugged her off, insisting it happened quite often. Her husband wondered why and sought to find out.)
The *&%#ing Results
It was determined that, on average, swearing students could hold their hands in the water over 40 seconds longer than when they did not swear. (Considering the average individual could keep a hand submerged for only a couple minutes, keeping the same hand under the water for an additional 40 seconds was quite a chilling accomplishment!)
Why were the swearing students able to keep their hands in icy water longer?
Preliminary research has pointed to the amygdala, a gland that makes the heart speed up and the resistance to pain stronger, as the key. It is basically responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction, which you probably have heard of previously.
The working theory is that using actual cuss words somehow activates deep primitive negative emotions, which somehow triggers the amygdala to choose the “fight” response.
The fight response then raises your heart rate and decreases pain sensations, just like swearing after feeling pain.
More research is still needed to determine the exact reason why using actual cuss words is able to induce this response.
So, even though cursing is often thought of as reflective of poor manners, it may be that profane language has the power to decrease pain that general speech does not.
Keele University psychologist, Dr. Richard Stevens, summarized his findings and offered this sound advice after the study was over: “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”
Do you follow the doctor’s orders?
If you want to learn more about the amygdala and it’s connection to hypnosis, please check out this article: click here to read more.
NeuroReport, June 2009
Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2009
You have probably heard about the Placebo effect. We know new drugs are measured against the placebo effect because a good percentage of people get better just by taking sugar pills.
I think a lot of us don’t take the time to consider how crazy this is. Some pretty major health conditions are “cured” by basically the belief that the pill or injection will work.
This is obviously power of the mind stuff, but until recently scientists had never been able to actually “see” the placebo effect actually working in the brain.
Thanks to Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (f MRI) and PET scans, researchers can now see the brain work in real time.
The Placebo Research
A researcher named Jon-Kar Zubieta, a neurologist at the University of Michigan, used some amazing trickery in order to discover that the driver of placebo effect in the brain is an area called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc).
What is interesting, (and actually makes sense) is that this area of the brain is responsible for our expectancy of reward.
I won’t go into too much detail about the actual study (it involved researchers sticking subjects in the jaw with a needle to cause pain – OUCH!!!), and then giving them an intravenous pain cure.
The cure of course was just plain old saline solution (a placebo).
The PET scans revealed that the placebo caused an actual dopamine boost with highest dopamine release coming from the nucleus accumbens (NAcc).
All the subjects experienced some relief, but some more than others.
So the researchers used fMRI on the same subjects to see if there was a correlation between those who got the best placebo effect with those who potentially had the mostactive nucleus accumbens (NAcc).
Scientists are tricky! Here is how they pulled it off.
While using f MRI to monitor brain activity, they had the subjects play a game where they could receive monetary rewards. The anticipation of reward intensified the activity in the nucleus accumbens.
The cool part is that the people who had the highest activity in the NAcc during the game are the same people who had the most profound placebo effect in the pain part of the study.
The Take Home
So it seems that it pays to have an NAcc that hums if you want to get cured by a sugar pill.
I have been thinking about this study a lot and it begs this question.
Could we actually train ourselves to enhance our expectancy of reward, thus strengthening the NA? If so, this might mean we could develop some ability for self healing. Or it just might be genetic – nobody knows right now
Here is the citation for the study I just summarized.
Scott et al.: Individual Differences in Reward Responding
Explain Placebo-Induced Expectations and Effects
Publishing in Neuron 55, 325–336, July 19, 2007. DOI
The research is still in its early stages and I would curious if any of you have any other real research on the subject (not new age mumbo jumbo, but real peer reviewedresearch).
If you do, just post it below.
Here are some other cool facts about the placebo effect:
- Orange, Red and other hot colored tablets work better as stimulants.
- Cool colored ones (blue, green, purple) work better as depressants.
- Big pills generally work better than small pills!
- Higher priced pills work better than lower priced pills.
- Injections work better than tablets
- And “branded” tablets work better than unbranded tablets!