“%&#$!” makes you feel better

Swearing like a sailor may alleviate pain

Although the news probably won’t stop parents from washing kids’ mouths out with soap, it turns out that cussing a blue streak may be a good thing. A study appearing in the August 5 NeuroReport suggests that four-letter words may help alleviate pain.

“Swear words are unique,” says Timothy Jay, a psychologist at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, who has studied the role of naughty words in linguistics. “They’re really the link between the language system and the emotional system.”

Inspiration for the new study came to psychologist Richard Stephens as he listened to his wife let loose with some unsavory language during the throes of labor. So he and his colleagues at Keele University in England conducted an experiment to test whether uttering emotion-laden choice words can actually change the amount of pain people feel. Undergraduate students (38 males and 29 females) each immersed a hand in cold water (about 5º Celsius) for as long as they could stand it, while repeating either a swear word or an innocuous word.

Before the study, participants were asked to write down five words they might say after hitting their thumb with a hammer — to control for varying foulness thresholds. One of these choices served as a swear word, and control words were five words the participants might use to describe a table. “A word someone might find shocking and scandalous is a word someone else might use every day,” Stephens says.

When people had a swear word for their mantra (popular choices: the s-word, the f-word, two b-words and a c-word), they were able to keep a hand in the chilly water longer. What’s more, after the ordeal, people who swore reported less pain.

Stephens and his colleagues turned up some interesting differences between men and women. Although swearing helped both sexes keep their hands in cold water longer, women reported a greater decrease in perceived pain after the experiment.

Swearing increased heart rate in both men and women, but had a greater effect on women. Researchers thought the heart rate increase might signal the beginning of a fight-or-flight response. Such a response may allow the body to tolerate or ignore pain, they say.

Many more studies of different kinds of pain and different measures of effects are needed before researchers fully understand the impact of swear words, Stephens says.

Jay says the study gets past the question of whether swearing should be frowned upon in polite society and instead addresses a scientific question. “When you try to describe swearing in moral terms — is it good or bad — it keeps you from getting at the deeper evolutionary links,” he says. “Where did this come from? Why do we do it?”

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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