Swearing can ease your pain, say scientists

By Culture24 Staff | 13 July 2009
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A picture of a bald, tensed head in darkness

Picture courtesy Joanna Kane, © the artist

Swearing has a key role to play in soothing physical pain, according to the latest experiments conducted by a team of academics for a leading neurological journal.

Volunteers who froze their hands in icy water for tests by researchers from Keele University struggled to cope when repeating ordinary words, but were able to prolong their torture when accompanying it with a repeated obscenity, defying scientific predictions in a breakthrough experts believe links "swearing and an increase in pain intolerance."

"Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon," said the University's Dr Richard Stephens, writing in NeuroReport.

"It taps into emotional brain centres and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain. Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists."

Stephens, together with his colleagues John Atkins and Andrew Kingston, had expected the insouciant members of the 64 participants to suffer more, citing the "catastrophising" potential of foul-mouthed outbursts to exaggerate situations.

"The team believes that the pain-lessening effect occurs because swearing triggers our natural fight-or-flight response," he observed, summarising the surprise results.

"What is clear is that swearing triggers not only an emotional response, but a physical one too, which may explain why the centuries-old practice of cursing developed and still persists today."

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