Uttering a curse word when you stub your toe or hit your thumb with a hammer could actually make it easier to bear the pain. Swearing is a common response to pain, but until now there has been no research looking into this.
"Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon," said Richard Stephens of Keele University in England, and one of the authors of the study.
Stephen’s team thought swearing would exaggerate the pain and people would tolerate it less. The opposite turned out to be true.
The researchers had 64 university students put their hands in a tub of ice water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice. The experiment was then repeated with the volunteers repeating a more common word that they would use to describe a table.
Contrary to what the researchers expected, the volunteers kept their hands submerged longer while repeating the swear word.
A Primal Response
Stephens says that swearing comes from deep-seated, primal, emotional brain centers. Just as a cat would screech if his tail as stepped on, a primate would make a noise, and in humans our language ability often transforms the screech into a swear word.
The researchers think that the increase in pain tolerance occurs because swearing triggers the body's natural "fight-or-flight" response. Stephens and his colleagues suggest that swearing may increase aggression (seen in accelerated heart rates), which downplays weakness to appear stronger.
"Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists," Stephens said.
The results of the study are detailed in the Aug. 5, 2009 issue of the journal NeuroReport. This article is adapted from the Live Science website.
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