My feet seem to have an uncanny ability to always find the one missing lego or the edge of the table leg I wasn’t paying enough attention to. I am not exactly what you would call a delicate flower; I am clumsy and uncoordinated, and when I hurt myself I can have the mouth of a sailor. If you see me in my regular daily life I seem pleasant enough, but watch me stub my toe once and you’ll hear a string of curse words you didn’t even know existed, laid out in colorful combinations you never would have thought to try. They usually don’t make sense, and my face will probably turn beet red after I realize what exactly I said in front of you; but you will walk away feeling thoroughly educated.
I never put much thought into this knee-jerk reaction, I just knew that yelling my obscenities and jumping up and down on my good leg made me feel better. But as it turns out, there is actual science behind this little fluke of humanity (studies like this make me kick myself internally for not joining the scientific community as my own career path). It is no secret that words have power; they can evoke tearful compassion, blood boiling anger, they can inspire uprisings and tear down governments. Words have the ability to lift the spirit or break the soul. Swearing itself evokes an emotional response; if you have ever been yelled at by a parent or glared at by a co-worker after allowed a particularly colorful four-letter beauty slip from your lips, then you have witnessed the response firsthand. We have created our own taboo language and imbued it with power, determining on a whim what is socially acceptable and what is not. If our response to mere words is so strong that we have created our own form of self-censorship, then what else can they do? Once again, science swoops in with the answers.
Researchers at Keele University’s School of Psychology were curious about the potential physical effects of swearing, and so they conducted their own experiment. This little test has been repeatedly replicated, and even found its way onto the TV show Mythbusters. They took 64 lucky undergrad volunteers and had them all partake in the ice water test. Each participant was asked to submerge their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as they possibly could while repeating a single word. For a control, participants were asked to do this while repeating a fairly innocuous word describing a table. And then we got to the good part; those involved in the study were then told to do the exact same thing, only this time they choose whatever curse word their heart desired. As it turns out, when repeating their favorite swear word, participants were able to hold their hand in the ice water for substantially longer than they could with a regular mundane word. In fact, they were able to tack on an average of 40 additional seconds to their time. As we all may know from plunging our hand into a slightly-melted cooler looking for the perfect beverage during the summer months: an additional 40 seconds in once water is a long time. After repeated experiments, they were able to confidently declare that, yes, the act of cursing actually did have a pain-lessening effect.
Scientists aren’t sure why this link exists, but they suspect that the act of cursing triggers our natural ‘fight or flight’ response. The heart rate of volunteers accelerated, which suggests that the amygdala was being activated (this part of the brain is responsible for the fight or flight reaction). It might account for a slight increase in aggression; and anytime we physically experience an increase like this, our body is internally preparing for a fight- which means it is bracing itself for possible pain to be inflicted on us. As a measure of self-protection, it dampens the pain receptors so you can focus on what you need to do to get out of your sticky situation.
But why curse words specifically? Why couldn’t you just scream ‘pop tart, French fry, monkey , handlebar, potato’ at the top of your lungs instead? It’s interesting to note that curses themselves work differently than traditional language. Studies suggest that they originate in a different, older part of our brains. They are more closely tied to the emotional centers in the right side of the brain, whereas most language production takes place in the left cerebral hemisphere. This is something that can be seen in certain cases of brain damage where most language function deteriorates, and yet the patient can still scream the f-word quite clearly and at regular intervals. Pretty crazy, isn’t it?
Now, before you foul-mouthed fiends start jumping for joy, there is a little bit of fine print here. As it turns out, the more frequently we curse, the less emotionally potent these words become. This translates into your physical reaction as well. Which means if you curse like a sailor all damn day, then when you drop a slew of f-bombs after stubbing your toe, their pain-dampening effect won’t be nearly as strong as the girl who sits 3 desks down from you at the office and only says ‘snickerdoodles’ when she gets a paper cut. When she finally lets a good four-letter friend fall from her lips, the effect will be stronger. If you over-use your curse words, you are left with just plain words. You’ll be like Tony Stark without the Iron Man suite- it might do something, but it won’t be enough. So please, swear responsibly my friends.