Ever stub your toe and feel the urge to yell out something as a result – usually a curse or swear word? You may not be entirely sure why you feel the need, but it seems to lessen the initial pain. But does it? Is there any science behind cursing and pain relief?
Cursing or swearing occurs in every culture. Usually it’s used to shock or insult others, or simply to let off a bit of steam. It also seems to be a way to let others know we’re upset or have just experienced something painful. We’ve all experienced it: after hitting our thumb with a hammer or stubbing our toe, we draw a sharp breath and mutter a swear word.
Until recently, there wasn’t any actual research on whether swearing actually relieves our pain. In 2009, that changed when a study was published in the journal NeuroReport which showed that swearing does in fact increase our pain tolerance. Swearing enables us to temporarily raise our pain threshold and withstand pain for a longer time.
How swearing achieves its pain reducing effects is still unclear, but the researchers postulate that the brain circuitry which is responsible for our emotions is involved. Previous studies have shown that unlike regular everyday language, which relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of our brain, expletives excite the evolutionarily structures buried deep inside the brain’s right half.
Fight Or Flight
One such structure is the amygdala, a group of neurons that triggers a fight-or-flight response which is partially responsible for allowing us to become less sensitive to pain and raising our heart rate. In the study, researchers say those group of neurons were indeed activated.
Their research is also backed by other experts in the field. Psychologist Steven Pinker, of Harvard University, compared the situation with what happens in the brain of a cat that somebody accidentally sat on. “I suspect that swearing taps into a defensive reflex in which an animal that is suddenly injured or confined, erupts in a furious struggle accompanied by an angry vocalization, to startle and intimidate an attacker” he says.
The dulling of the pain didn’t work for the subjects who had a tendency to catastrophize their pain, however. For instance, those who were convinced that it would be the worst pain they would ever experience found little or no relief from swearing during the test.
It also should be noted that curse words or ‘swearing’ lose their effect if we use them too often or if they no longer carry any particularly emotionality to them. This is why when a curse word is used by someone who swears all the time, it almost seems like regular, everyday conversation to them — because it is. Without emotion behind it, all that is left of a curse-word is the word itself, which is unlikely to relieve anyone’s pain.
Stephens, Richard; Atkins, John; Kingston, Andrew (Aug 2009). “Swearing as a response to pain-effect of daily swearing frequency.“. J. Neuroreport 20 (12): pp 1056-1060 doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1;12(12):1274-81.
Stephens R, Umland C. Journal of Pain. APS (12):1274-81 Epub 2011 Nov 11.