SWEARING occurs in most cultures - people swear to let off steam, or to shock or insult others. It is also a common response to a painful experience. We've all done it: after stubbing our toe, or hitting our thumb with a hammer, we draw a sharp breath and mutter a swear word. Until now, though, whether swearing actually alters our perception of pain had not been investigated. But according to a new study due to be published next month in the journal NeuroReport, swearing increases pain tolerance, enabling us to withstand at least one form of pain for longer.
Some pain theorists regard our tendency to swear after hurting ourselves to be a form of "pain-related catastrophising" - an exaggerated negative mind set which is brought to bear during a painful experience. As such, swearing is thought of as a maladaptive response, which contributes to the intensity of the pain and emotional distress. Given that it is such a common response, Richard Stephens and his colleagues at the Keele University School of Psychology set out test the hypothesis that swearing would decrease pain tolerance and increase pain perception.
They recruited 67 undergraduates, and asked to make two short lists of words - one containing five words they might use after hitting themselves on the thumb with a hammer, the other containing five words they might use to describe a table. The participants submerged one of their hands into room temperature water for three minutes, to provide a standardized starting point, then transferred it to a container of cold water and instructed to keep it submerged for as long as they could. In one condition, they were told to repeat the first swear word they had included in their list; in another, they repeated one of the words describing a table.
The researchers measured how long the participants kept their hands submerged in cold water, and asked them to rate the amount of pain they felt. Their heart rates were also recorded after they had submerged their hands in room temperature water as well as after the submersion in cold water. Contrary to their hypothesis, they found that swearing actually reduced the amount of pain felt. The participants kept their hands submerged in the cold water longer for longer, and also reported experiencing less pain, when they repeated a swear word than when they repeated a word describing a table. Swearing was also associated with increased heart rate.
Swearing therefore enabled the participants to tolerate to the cold temperature for longer, and also caused a reduction in their perception of the pain felt. A difference between males and females was observed. Swearing led to a greater reduction in pain perception and a bigger increase in heart rate in females. Most interestingly though, the effect of swearing in females occurred regardless of their tendency to catastrophise their pain. On the other hand, in the males, catastrophising was found to diminish the effects of swearing on the felt pain. This is interesting in light of other findings which show that men generally catastrophise less, but swear more often, than women.
This study shows that swearing appears to have an analgesic effect under certain conditions. Exactly how is unclear, but the authors suggest that it is because swearing induces negative emotions. It is well known that pain has a strong emotional aspect to it. Fear of pain, for example, is known to enhance pain perception, possibily by activating pathways which descend from the brain and modulate noxious stimuli entering the spinal cord. Swearing, too, is known to induce negative emotions (according to Steven Pinker, it taps into the "deep and ancient parts of the emotional brain"). It may therefore trigger a physiological alarm reaction known as the fight or flight response, which accelerates the heart rate and reduces sensitivity to pain.