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