Among the unusual career paths out there, here’s one for the record. A psychologist named Timothy Jay from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has studied cursing for the past 35 years. According to Dr. Jay, we curse because, “It allows us to vent or express anger, joy, surprise, happiness. It’s like the horn on your car; you can do a lot of things with that; it’s built into you.”
But according to a new study just out, there’s another reason for using profanity: cursing relieves physical pain. The study, out of Keele University in England, put 67 college students to the test. The students stuck their hands in icy water and held them there until they couldn’t take it any longer. While their hands froze, the students chanted a curse word of their own choosing. Then they repeated the experiment while chanting a neutral word used to describe a table.
When cursing, the students not only reported feeling less pain than when clean-mouthed, but they also kept their hands immersed an average of 40 seconds longer. The typical cursing student kept hands under water for two minutes, but when using clean language, they could tolerate only one minute and 15 seconds. Those 40 seconds amounted to 50 percent more time under the icy water — while being able to ignore the pain.
Interestingly, swearing worked better for women than for men. Although swearing did indeed work for most of the men, it didn’t help some of the male subjects at all — those hypochondriacs who thought the cold water was the worst thing ever. According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker that may be because, “…men swear more than women. [For women] I suspect that swearing retains more of an emotional punch because it has not been overused.”
But how does the emotional punch of cursing reduce the experience of pain? The director of the study, Dr. Richard Stephens, postulates that when we curse, we trigger the fight or flight response in the brain. This is the response that normally gets triggered when people feel fear. The heart rate increases; the adrenalin pumps; the body gets ready to take action, and in that state, you don’t feel pain as readily. The scientists tested this theory by measuring the heart rate of the subjects when they cursed and found that in fact, their heart rates did increase.
Again, fight or flight usually gets provoked when people feel fear, but in the case of cursing, the researchers believe, the response comes from feelings of aggression that the cursing sets off. Dr. Stephens suggests that perhaps swearing evolved when our ancestors faced predators. They discovered that by cursing, they increased their courage and enhanced their own ability to be aggressive, while simultaneously dulling any pain they might have felt.
Other theorists liken cursing to the noises animals make when attacking or hurt. Dr. Pinker, for instance, says, “I suspect that swearing taps into a defensive reflex in which an animal that is suddenly injured or confined erupts in a furious struggle, accompanied by an angry vocalization, to startle and intimidate an attacker.”
The researchers caution that if overused, swear words lose their healing power (kind of like antibiotics). Dr. Pinker says, “That’s one of the reasons that I think people should not overuse profanity in their speech and writing…. because it blunts the power [of the swear words] when you do need them. You should save them for just the right occasions.”
Dr. Stephens believes the “right occasion” is when you feel pain. “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear,” he says, thus presenting a different angle on pain management and adding a page to the book of home remedies. Unlike aspirin, Tylenol, oxycontin, or any of the typical pain relievers, cursing comes free of charge and with few side effects, except maybe a fine from the FCC if you do it on TV — or shame suffered when the neighbors overhear, or expulsion from school or church. But if such insults leave you anguished, you can easily make yourself feel better without medication or therapy simply by hurling a few well chosen swear words into the air or muffled in a pillow.
Of course, there are alternatives to cursing when it comes to relieving pain. It is reported in that in 1924 Mahatma Gandhi had his appendix removed — without anesthesia — and remained conscious the whole time, conversing with his doctors. His doctors said he showed no sign of pain. Just a guess on my part, but I’d give odds he wasn’t hurling “F” bombs at his doctors.
Or for those of you looking for a more user-friendly option, you might want to read up on topical pain relief.