Friday Weird Science Repost: That MotherF**king HURTS.

Dec 30 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Sci is off on vacation for a few days this time of year (to my credit, I really think I earned it). Unfortunately, on the VERY FIRST DAY, I went and took a massive fall (which is what happens when you go running with an inexperienced Golden Retriever, who is very sweet, and was VERY SORRY).

And as I was lying there on the ground, bleeding from various places (don't worry, it turned out very minor), all I could say was a string of various curses. Mostly out of sheer embarrassment, but also because I knew about this study, and I knew how to kill the pain! Stephens, Atkins, Kingston. "Swearing as a response to pain" NeuroReport, 2009.

As you might know, most languages and cultures have swear words (or as we from the South like to call them, cuss words). There are lots of reasons people swear, we usually start off being shocking, and after a while it just becomes habit. Like the great Yoda once sort of kind of said "being shocking lets of steam, letting off steam leads to habit, and habit...leads to Physioprof". I have also realized that swearing is the universal language of science. It comes to us all.

But there's no denying that swearing is usually deemed inappropriate for at least some kinds of society (like, you know, 5 year olds, your grandmother, etc). So people wonder what USE swearing has in certain contexts. Like, say, in pain. Why do people swear when they are in pain? Whatever happened to "ouch"? Or "AAAAARRRRRGHHHHHH".

Well, these authors hypothesized that swearing as related to pain was actually a maladaptive response, one that occurred because, at the time of the pain, negative thoughts and emotions come to the fore. So they thought that swearing while someone was in pain would make the perception of the pain worse, making people more intolerant to pain. But of course, being scientists, you have to TEST it first.

So they took 67 undergrads, and exposed them to cold-pain. This is where you basically hold your hand in a bucket of ice water. I have done this before, and it's really pretty unpleasant, but obviously can't hurt you. While the students had their hands submerged, they were allowed to repeat a word over and over. The word was either their swear word of choice, or a word they would use to describe a table. The scientists then measured how long the students could keep their hands under the water, and then asked how they would rate the pain. The hypothesis was that, if the students were swearing, they were being more negative, and would be able to tolerate less pain, and rate the experience as more painful.

And boy were THEY surprised!

You can see above three different measures. On the far left is how long men and women lasted in the cold water, in the middle is how bad they rated the pain, and on the right is their change in heart rate, all for either the swearing or the non-swearing condition.

So it turns out that swearing actually LESSENS PAIN! The authors hypothesize that this might be related to an emotional release, which also results in an increase in heart rate.

I'm not really sure about this. I actually think they needed another condition. In this study, the students maintained the same pace and volume of word repetition, whether they were saying 'f**k' or 'table'. If the hypothesis about emotional release is the case, I think it might actually be more useful to add in changes in volume, to see if louder expressions help, and to also add in just an incoherent "ARGH" at various volumes, to see if volume and heartrate, and possibly emotional expression are related.

But regardless, this study shows that there's something to be said for expressing your pain. This could be useful for many people in response to acute pain, from stubbing your toe to giving birth, as long as you need pain relief. So don't be afraid to cuss when it hurts, and if people look askance, show them this study! After all, it won an IgNobel.

Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain NeuroReport DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1

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