Daily Archives: September 13, 2009

When “Ouch” Just Isn’t Enough

Some swearing required

Some swearing required

You took a bad spill on the ski slopes and blew out your knee.  Or you were slicing raw vegetables when the knife slipped and you stabbed your hand.  What did you do next?  More specifically, what did you say next?  Well, potty-mouth, you”ll be interested to know that there seems to be some therapeutic benefit to that four-letter word (not “ouch”) that you yelped.

A journal called NeuroReport recently published the results of a study that explored the connection between pain and cursing.  A British psychologist named Richard Stephens had noticed the link when he accidentally slammed a hammer onto his pinky.  “While it was throbbing,” Stephens said, “I swore a bit.”  A bit?  I’m sure he’s just being modest.  If I smashed my finger with a hammer, all the expletive-using skills I perfected in the U.S. Army would come flooding back, believe me.

Stephens speculated that “swearing is such a common response to pain, there has to be an underlying reason why we do it.”  So he and his colleagues at Keele University recruited some college students to participate in an experiment in which their hands were immersed in icy water.  As you know, that can get pretty &%#*! painful after a while.

In one round, the students were instructed to use a non-expletive.  In another round, they were permitted to repeat a curse word.  Each was allowed to choose his or her own curse word, by the way; being British students, the most popular choice was “bollocks”.  Most used obscenities rather than profanity.  (The difference, basically, is that obscenity is biological and profanity is theological.)

It turned out that those who cursed were able to withstand pain better than those who didn’t.  On average, the bleep-word users were able to keep their hands in the water forty seconds longer than the students who used words you could say to your mother. 

The researchers noted that using curse words elevated the heart rate of the study’s participants.  “In swearing, people have an emotional response,” Stephens stated, “and it’s the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain.”  There was more theorizing along those lines, about primitive reflexes that evolved in animals and which are articulated as words in humans, and so forth.

A lot of it sounds like bulls**t to me, but luckily I didn’t say so out loud.  Scientists warn that so-called casual swearing — using curse words frequently — dulls the pain-killing effect of those words.  Stephens told BBC News, “Swearing is emotional language, but if you overuse it, it loses its emotional attachment.”

I searched several sources, including Time Magazine, Scientific American, and CNN Health.  No one reported what the Keele University president said when he found out that his professors spent money to get college students to say words they use all the time for free.