Pain relief in four-letter form

hammerSpeaking of swearing, a study published last month has shown that it might actually be good for us.

Although swearing is looked down upon in polite company, researchers have begun to investigate why it’s such a common response to hurting ourselves.  A study that asked college students to hold their hands in icy cold water found that those who were told to repeat an expletive of their choice could withstand the pain longer than those who chanted a neutral word.

One suggested reason for this is that swearing is related to a ‘fight or flight‘ reflex triggered deep in the brain, and may be associated with startling or attempting to intimidate an attacker.

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.

I am quite fond of the car horn analogy.  A personal theory, too, is that we need to get attention when we’re injured.  At the very least, letting people know you’ve just stubbed your toe might get a sympathetic ‘awww’, which always makes you feel a little better.

A caveat mentioned in the article is that the more we swear, the less emotionally potent the words become. And without emotion, all that is left of a swearword is the word itself, unlikely to soothe anyone’s pain.

Full article from Scientific American.