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Article from The Scientist: Why Swearing and Pain Go Hand in Hand By Emma Byrne

Why Swearing and Pain Go Hand in Hand

Screaming obscenities when you stub your toe makes perfect biological sense.

By Emma Byrne | January 1, 2018

the-scientist.com/?articles...

It was pain that got me hooked on swearing.

I was working as a computational neuroscientist, based in London’s Science Museum, and I was looking for interesting experiments to demonstrate to visitors. I read about a study that needed no more than a stopwatch, a bowl of ice water, and volunteers who were willing to keep their hands submerged as long as possible in the freezing water—once while saying a neutral word, and once while swearing.

My version of the study was due to be run at a late-night event that included access to a bar, so I already knew that our results would be a curiosity at best. But in the original experiment, carried out under more-controlled (and less alcohol-soaked) conditions by Richard Stephens at Keele University in 2009, the results were nevertheless striking and similar to my own. Using a swearword rather than a neutral word had two significant effects: it allowed the volunteers to keep their hands in ice water for about half again as long, and swearing subjects reported that the water actually felt less painful.

At that point, it was a toss-up whether I’d end up writing a book on the science of swearing or one on pain, because something about that experiment really intrigued me, and still does. As my pile of research findings on strong language steadily grew higher, I decided Swearing Is Good for You was the book I wanted to write.

While writing the chapter on pain and swearing, I realized that pain is not a purely neurological phenomenon. Sure, peripheral sensory neurons give you information about a stimulus, but the way you process that pain is as much psychologically constructed as it is neurologically formed. Our anticipation of pain, our gender roles and social expectations, even whether we’re feeling lonely or sad, all change the way we feel pain. Swearing is just one of those factors. So how does it work?

In Stephens’s experiment, he took care to rule out some purely cognitive effects. He wanted to be sure that the volunteers weren’t distracting themselves with more creativity or varied language in one trial versus the other, so he allowed them only one word on the swearing trial (such as “shit”) and one word on the neutral trial (such as “wooden”).

To try to minimize the effect of one word being more difficult to recall than the other, Stephens asked each volunteer for five words they would use if they dropped a hammer on their thumbs, and five words to describe a table. Then he took the first word on each list.

The study clearly showed that swearing affected the volunteers’ perception of pain, reducing its intensity. Stephens’s lab is now using video games, measures of people’s background levels of aggression, and different types of swearing to try to uncover why swearing is such a powerful analgesic.

Follow-up experiments suggest that “minced oaths”—those socially palatable curses we trot out when we think we might be overheard—just don’t work as well as the real thing. Intriguingly, the same is true in patients with Tourette syndrome. Using a softer form of swearing gives them much less relief from the urge to tic, like rubbing an itch instead of scratching it.

We’re still not entirely certain what it is that makes swearing an effective painkiller, but in the research for Swearing is Good for You, I discovered that it is a unique part of our language, bound up with our emotions, our communication, our sensory experiences, and our societies.

Emma Byrne researches artificial intelligence for 10x Future Technologies. Her research has been published in Science and The BMJ, among other publications.

15 Replies
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Interesting.

Did the experiment measure the strength of a non swear word when hitting your thumb with a hammer?

In the same way you would use your spouse's name, child or dog when you are angry as opposed to when you are pleased to see them.

One word....DAVID........ says so much and no swearing. Or SKYE and sh immediately knows she has done wrong.

Your voice is a powerful instrument on its own.

We managed to grow up into fairly normal adults with no swearing in the house. No it wasn't rules...just we didn't know any.

x

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The article states freezing water. I doubt many volunteers would agree to being hit with a hammer, even in a bar.

It's often tone rather than what's said that people & dogs react to.

I read recently was how many swear words young children use. Some of my pupils even taught me a swear word or two, as well as a lot more colloquial insults. ;)

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Yes sorry cold water. That means the pain would be gradual rather thn the instant pain of the hammer! Unless you went mid winter swimming and that would be an expletive!

That was what I mean tone of voice rather than words themselves. So....I am not sure I could glean much from this research.

I worked in a factory where the young girls couldn't string more than 2 words without one being the f word. Maybe that helped the pain of a not nice job!

x

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Interesting article - thanks! This might explain why I swear so much, then. :-D

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Good therapy! ;)

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I certainly swear on occasion in response to pain. The trouble with the book is that it ignores how the muscle fascia interface works in response to emotion. This is not surprising because the muscular input to pain is ignored by many in the scientific community. Papers are written concerning things that can be measured. If something cannot be measured then no papers are written on the subject.

When I swear my muscular response changes. This in turn prevents tightening up of muscles in the area related to the pain area. Result less pain. Swearing is using taboo words and expressions. So if swearing is used too much the taboo is reduced and the effect of the swear word is lost.

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It's a book on swearing, not physiology. ;)

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Nice answer!! x

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Psychology and physiology go hand in hand. And Swearing issues are psychology issues Psychology and physiology go hand in hand is often ignored by many psychologists. Hence the example I gave in my previous reply.

When Stephen Fry in his series on language showed the effects of swearing on discomfort on him who did not swear much and on Brain Blessed who swore a lot.

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It's still a swearing with regard to language book.

Stephen Fry writes rather a lot of swear words in his books.

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I have always known that swearing is a good thing when sudden pain happens if I was somewhere I could not swear when sudden pain happens it tended to last longer and hurt more.

For me no word should be considered as to strong to use all words we use were at one time used in everyday language and were not considered as swearing its just as time passes we decide that we do not like to hear it and it gets moved from OK to use to not OK to use, the word that most people consider to be one of the worst is "Fuck" but why is it now considered as bad to use when it only means to "copulate" or "to make love" why is one ok to use and another not if it helps then use it there is no reason not to swear the only thing wrong is you are using the word incorrectly.

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Sometimes there's just no other words strong enough!

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Hermes123.rGet into some reality research, finding a real way to bridge the gap of pain, if this is not a total waste of research money? No wonder we lag so far behind in cures and advances, other medical conditions. I have two examples one I smashed fingers under a press, I felt sick the stomach saw stars sat in a chair as an ice pack was put around my hand which numb till i was taken to hospital. I felt to ill to swear. On the second occasion in the Army, we had built a dam in a mountain stream to swim in the day time, one night two of us left behind at 2am. I decided to go in for swim forgetting how cold the water got at night running over the rocks, I came out quicker than i went in black and blue got as many towels around me as possible, in half hour i was toasty and no swearing. where I would end up swearing is heat, burning sensation of the skin that might get every thing thrown at it. so really its horses for courses depending on the situation, not rocket science depends on the threshold of the accident and consciousness. Hermes.

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Very interesting. I wonder if people behave differently if they are experiencing chronic pain? I'm assuming the subjects in this ice water study were all healthy pain-free under normal circumstances subjects? I wonder if your response to the daily grind of chronic pain is more of a resigned "here we go again" than an expletive? In an experiment like this it could be the shock & novelty of pain that leads to the swearing.

Can't say I've ever sworn in response to my chronic pain (I am very good at swearing in many other situations). Maybe I should give it a try? (meant tongue-in-cheek).

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I would expect everyone with chronic,, & acute, pain to behave differently from those who are not.

Clinical trials are usually carried out on healthy people, & given the choice of trial venue being a bar, I'd expect the volunteers to be in better health than most of us on here.

I swear anyway, but more frequency & volume with acute pain!

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