Bad language could be good for you, a new study shows…“Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it,” says psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England, who led the study. –Scientific American
I never could get over the notion that in certain dire circumstances profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer. –Mark Twain
Well, duh. What the bleep did you think? I mean, bleep. It takes a bleeping scientific study to figure that out?
You do have to admire the way the study was designed. They took a bunch of college-student volunteers – bleeping hosers! – and had them plunge their hands in ice water and keep them there for as long as they could stand it. Some of them were allowed to swear like sailors, and others were given neutral words to chant. The chanters reported more severe pain and, on average, pulled their hands out 40 seconds sooner than the curse-word screamers.
Hey, we’ve all been there, right? Sittin’ around the fire at Trout Lake pounding PBRs because the fish aren’t bitin’ and that’s because that bleep, Joey – bleepin’ bleephead! – never told you the ice was still in. So, bleep it, maybe somebody oughta bleepin’ do something about it, and before you know it you’re rippin’ off your shirt, and the rest of them are chanting “Go! Go!” And the ice on the shore sears the bottoms of your feet but you can’t stop now, and you hurl your winter-pale self goal-line style onto the thin-cracked surface shattering in blue-white freaking liquid pain. . !
At times like those a simple “darnit” isn’t going to work. You need something stronger, something bellowed from a more primitive part of your brain.
The brains behind the English study say it’s unclear exactly how swearing achieves its physical effects. But they’re pretty sure the pain-killing expletives come not from the usual language place in the brain’s outer left hemisphere but from evolutionarily ancient structures buried deep inside the right half.
One of these is called the amygdala. It’s an almond-shaped group of neurons that can trigger a flight-or-fight response in which your heart rate climbs and you become less sensitive to pain. In the ice-water study, students’ heart rates rose when they swore, and researchers say this suggests the amygdala was activated.
The same thing happens when you sit on your cat. Not to you, dumb bleep, it happens to your cat. Steven Pinker of Harvard, who has also done a detailed analysis of swearing, 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.”
Those of you who have ever shouted at a hammer that mistook your thumb for a nail know the instant-reaction response he’s talking about.
And then there’s M.C. Hammer and all that bleeping rap bleep. Gangsta rap. I’d like to take a hammer to those bleeps. Promoting that bleep to my kids. Call that bleeping music? If my mom ever caught me listening to any of that bleep she’d have whaled the living bleep outa me. Bleepin’-A.
The scientists who study swearing say it’s built into us, like the horn on your car. Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts says it’s not always about aggression. “[Cursing] allows us to vent, to express anger, joy, surprise, or happiness.” What was it Tony Soprano always said? It had to have been his favorite form of endearment: “Com’ere, you fat bleep!”?
The Brit, Richard Stephens, warns about two forms of overuse, though. In extreme cases, he says, the hotline to the brain’s emotional system can overheat, as when road rage erupts into violence. The other catch is that the more we swear the less emotionally potent the words become. And without the emotion, there is no pain relief.