Do you feel badly when you swear? A new study shows bad language could be good for you. For the first time, psychologists have found that swearing may serve an important function in relieving pain.
The study in the journal NeuroReport, measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or chant a neutral word. When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer.
The researchers say swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it. Just how swearing achieves its physical effects is unclear. But the researchers speculate that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved. Earlier studies have shown that unlike normal language, which relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives hinge on structures buried deep inside the right half.
One such structure is the amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons that can trigger a fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain. Indeed, the students’ heart rates rose when they swore, a fact the researchers say suggests that the amygdala was activated.
There is a catch, though: The more we swear, the less emotionally potent the words become. And without emotion, all that is left of a swear word is the word itself, unlikely to soothe anyone’s pain.