There is a certain four-letter word that evokes much emotion, is often uttered by mothers giving birth, and whose usage by humans is thought to be evolutionarily adaptive: f___!
According to a new study by British researchers, saying the F word or any other commonly used expletive can work to reduce physical pain and it seems that people may use curse words by instinct. Indeed, as any owner of a banged shin, whacked funny bone or stubbed toe knows, dancing the agony jig and shouting its profane theme tune are about as automatic as the response to a doctor's reflex hammer.
To figure out why, psychologists at Britain's Keele University recruited 64 college students and asked them to stick their hands in a bucket of ice water and endure the pain for several minutes. One group was allowed to repeat a curse word of their choice continuously while their hands were in the water; another group was asked to repeat a non-expletive control word, such as that which might be used to describe a table. The result was that swearing not only allowed students to withstand the discomfort longer, but also reduced their perception of pain intensity. Curse words, the study found, help you cope.
"Swearing increases your pain tolerance," says Richard Stephens, a psychologist and lead author of the study, which was published this week in the journal NeuroReport. Although the experiment's initial hypothesis was inspired by anecdotal evidence from some pain researchers that swearing was actually a maladaptive behavior that served only to make things worse, Stephens' findings showed exactly the opposite. "The No. 1 priority is to make the pain go away. If [swearing] made the pain worse, that would be illogical," Stephens says, adding that you hardly need a scientific study to bear out the theory.
It was an everyday incident in his backyard that first piqued Stephens' fascination with cursing. While building a shed in his garden, he accidentally hammered his little finger. "I whacked my hand really, really hard," he says, "and while it was throbbing, I swore a bit." Being a psychologist, of course that got him thinking, Why did I react in that way? Later, he witnessed his wife do the same thing while giving birth to their daughter at moments of intense pain, she would holler expletives. "She immediately apologized," he remembers, "but [the medical staff] said, 'Don't apologize! We get this all the time.' "
That's probably because humans are hardwired to swear cathartically, says Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of The Stuff of Thought, an exploration of the psychology of language. Pinker distinguishes cathartic cursing from using profanity descriptively, idiomatically, abusively or for emphasis, and points to similar behavior in animals that suggests its evolutionary roots. If you step on a dog or cat's tail, it will let out a sharp yelp of pain, for example. "Swearing probably comes from a very primitive reflex that evolved in animals," Pinker says. "In humans, our vocal tract has been hijacked by our language skills," so instead of barking out a random sound, "we articulate our yelp with a word colored with negative emotion."
The part of the brain that accounts for the urge to swear or yelp, in the case of animals is deep within, suggesting its primitiveness. Studies of non-human primates show that vocalization is nearly always attributed to subcortical processes in the brain, in those regions that control primal, raw emotions, says Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, a professor of speech language pathology and audiology at New York University. In humans too, the urge to swear likely stems from primitive parts, but it is usually overridden by commands from the brain's more complex cortex the abundant gray matter on which humans rely for language and reason, among other sophisticated abilities. "We have intact frontal lobes, which inhibit these responses," Sidtis explains. But in certain circumstances either because we don't bother to inhibit them or because the shock of pain or discomfort momentarily surpasses the safeguards our impulse for obscenity takes over. "In that way, it's like the dog when you step on his tail," Sidtis says.
It may be that swearing serves as an alarm bell, triggering the body's fight-or-flight response, as Stephens postulates in the study. He and his colleagues found that when study participants used expletives, their heart rates were consistently higher than when they were repeating non-obscene control words a physiological response that is consistent with fight or flight. But while it is typically fear that triggers the stress response, Stephens suggests the salient emotion in this case is not fear but aggression. "In swearing, people have an emotional response, and it's the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain," says Stephens, whose next step is to research the relationship between induced aggression and reduction of pain. (In past studies, the opposite has been found: higher levels of pain tolerance predict heightened aggression.)
But before you go yelling four-letter words at every turn, consider this: in Stephens' study, swearing reduced the perception of pain more strongly in women than in men. That may be because in daily life "men swear more than women," says Pinker, which could have the unfortunate side effect of dulling the natural painkiller. "[For women] I suspect that swearing retains more of an emotional punch because it has not been overused," he says.
"That's one of the reasons that I think people should not overuse profanity in their speech and writing," says Pinker. "That's not because I'm a prude, but because it blunts [swear words] of their power when you do need them. You should save them for just the right occasions."