Science Just Proved Swearing Actually Physically Reduces Pain

Thursday, 01 February 2018 - 1:54PM
Thursday, 01 February 2018 - 1:54PM
Science Just Proved Swearing Actually Physically Reduces Pain
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Image credit: Unsplash

Next time your mom makes you put a dollar in the swear jar, just let her know that you're practicing self-therapy.

Psychologist and Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad author Richard Stephens had long wondered why swearing makes us feel better, so he conducted a study to find out. After clearing it with the school's ethics committee, Stephens had 67 of his undergraduate students at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, stick their hands in ice-cold water for as long as they could bear it, twice. The first time he asked them to swear, and the second he asked them not to.

Stephens randomized the order of the swearing and neutral words by asking the participants for five words they might use if a hammer was dropped on their thumb, and five words they would use to describe a table. He took the first swear word in the first list and its counterpart in the second list.

It turned out that the cursing students could keep their hands in the water for 50 percent longer than those who were using neutral word for table. Students' heart rates went up while swearing, but their feelings of pain went down."Pain used to be thought of as a purely biological phenomenon, but actually pain is very much psychological," Stephens said. "The same level of injury will hurt more or less in different circumstances."

Though all students seemed to exhibit various degrees of "fight or flight" response, Stephens acknowledged that every person is different, suggesting that the best way to quantify an individuals threshold is by monitoring their heart rate and how sweaty their palms are by attaching small electrodes to the fingertips.

Stephens also collaborated with his undergraduate student Claire Allsop on a study to determine if increased levels of aggression had a similar effect on pain levels as swearing. Allsop gathered 40 more students to try the ice water test, but first had them play either a first-person-shooter video game or a golf game, then fill out a questionare that recorded how riled up they were feeling.

"We basically showed the same pattern of effect as we did for swearing: They could tolerate [the ice water] longer, and said they perceived it as less painful, and they also showed a rise in heart rate," said Stephens.

Of course, not all pain is self-inflicted. While many people self-medicate to cure their chronic pain, new research suggests that VR might provide a remedy more effective than dangerous, often lethal opioid painkillers. A new, wireless electrical device that sends electrical signals to the brain that block pain and releases dopamine to boot also might also be a healthier alternative to opioid painkillers. Of course, you could also just become an adept at cursing up a storm.

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