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Jul. 13 2009 - 8:27 pm | 84 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Swear the Pain Away

3d swear word texts

Image by v i p e z via Flickr

Here at Neuroworld, we love swearing. Not on the blog, as much as possible. But in real life: awesome. Earlier this year, we took a look at the psychology of swearing. Now there’s a study, forthcoming in the journal NeuroReport, providing evidence that swearing actually alleviates pain.

The researchers went in with the assumption that swearing might decrease pain tolerance (that it’s “a maladaptive response, which contributes to the intensity of the pain and emotional distress”); but they found the opposite. Here’s a write-up, from Neurophilosophy:

They recruited 67 undergraduates, and asked to make two short lists of words – one containing five words they might use after hitting themselves on the thumb with a hammer, the other containing five words they might use to describe a table. The participants submerged one of their hands into room temperature water for three minutes, to provide a standardized starting point, then transferred it to a container of cold water and instructed to keep it submerged for as long as they could. In one condition, they were told to repeat the first swear word they had included in their list; in another, they repeated one of the words describing a table.

The researchers measured how long the participants kept their hands submerged in cold water, and asked them to rate the amount of pain they felt. Their heart rates were also recorded after they had submerged their hands in room temperature water as well as after the submersion in cold water. Contrary to their hypothesis, they found that swearing actually reduced the amount of pain felt. The participants kept their hands submerged in the cold water longer for longer, and also reported experiencing less pain, when they repeated a swear word than when they repeated a word describing a table. Swearing was also associated with increased heart rate.

Why exactly swearing might reduce pain (at least in this very specific circumstance) is unknown.

Nonetheless, expect to hear this from your doctor soon: Take two of these motherf#@#&s, and call me in the morning.


2 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 6 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    One reason sailors swear like sailors (I’ve done a lot of competitive sail racing) is there are so many *&&^%$## ways to hurt yourself that the air is often blue.

  2. collapse expand

    Ryan, I heard of this study a few weeks back, and it totally made sense. You hurt yourself somewhere you can’t curse (church picnic) and it hurts a lot, and you feel frustrated. You hurt yourself somewhere you can curse (auto shop), and it hurts, but stops hurting sooner, and you feel less frustrated. Now comes the why question.

    Caitlin, is that a real curse word you covered up?

  3. collapse expand

    I’m talking without a net but I seem to recall studies that show that swearing (and singing) exercises different neurons than speaking. If the swearing neurons are cross-coupled with the pain centers, this study would make sense.
    I’m interested in how we know what sounds (or thoughts) are swearing. Clearly I could type Latin curses without funny punctuation and not offend. If I knew it was a curse, but my audience didn’t, would I still get pain relief from yelling it?

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

    Comments, questions, news tips, creative verbal abuse, etc. can be sent to: editor-at-ryansager.com.

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