Steve Carell’s character in “40-Year-Old Virgin” probably would’ve gotten a better chest wax if he’d yelled out a four letter word instead of “Kelly Clarkson” to cope with the painful procedure. According to a study reported on by the BBC* earlier this week, swearing can help us endure pain about 50 percent longer than if we try to politely grin and bear it.
Dr. Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University, wanted to know why he immediately swore in reaction to hammering his thumb one day. To test whether expletives have any pain-reducing powers, he corralled 64 volunteers to see how long they could hold their hands in a bowl of ice water. For the first round, people repeat their favorite curse word to their heart’s content while their hands prickled and burned in the chilly bath. In the second round, participants could only say “a more commonplace word that they would use to describe a table,” says the BBC.
On average, people endured the ice water treatment for 50 percent longer when they could swear. Dr. Stephens thinks this is possible because swearing triggers humans’ fight-or-flight response, which mitigates the effects of pain and fear to allow us to evade potential dangers.
If you take a look at how and where the human brain processes swearing, this practical application makes sense. According to How Swearing Works, the brain treats swearwords like verbal reflexes. Scientists think the brain stores four letter words as entire units, rather than combinations of phonemes, as with the rest of our vocabulary. In addition, words are normally regulated in the left hemisphere of the brain with emotional context coming from the right. Not so for swearwords. The brain processes them almost entirely in limbic system and basal ganglia of the right (emotional, impulsive) hemisphere.
In a lovely twist of irony, Dr. Stephens warns that the potty mouths among us may not reap the pain tolerance rewards from cussin’. Too much swearing numbs its psychological effect and reduces the chances of it signaling the body to hang in there.
*This study first caught my eye on Discover Magazine’s Discoblog.