Most of us can relate to uttering the odd expletive after accidentally stubbing a toe, hammering a finger or encountering some other form physical pain (such as listening to “Hero,” by Mariah Carey).
An excellent example of this comes from the hilarious 40-Year Old Virgin scene where Andy Stitzer (played by Steve Carell) attempts to get his chest waxed and can’t help but offer a barrage of astounding profanity at the tiny, unassuming aesthetician each time she removes a strip of wax. “Youuuuuuu fucker!” he screams after the first one. “You shithead! I hate you soooo much!” after the next.
Interestingly, a recent study in the journal NeuroReport suggests there may actually be a good reason to do this. To the credit of potty-mouths everywhere, swearing may actually help reduce pain.
Lead author Richard Stevens measured how long subjects could hold one of their hands fully submerged in a bucket of ice water. He asked half of the participants to repeat a swear word (ex. “shit”) and the other half to repeat a neutral word (ex. “table”).
Those instructed to swear were able to hold their hands in the water for an average of 40 seconds longer than those who did not swear. Amazingly, they also reported feeling less pain during the procedure.
Based on these results, Stephens hypothesized that swearing induces the “fight-or-flight” response which is responsible for the experience of lessened pain via increased epinephrine. Specifically, subjects who were allowed to swear felt more like they were retaliating against an attack than those who were not allowed to swear. This perceived fight situation caused the release of epinephrine (or “adrenaline”) in swearers, which is a chemical that decreases the physical sensation of pain, and allows animals to fight off attackers with more stamina.
This hypothesis was not directly tested in the study; however it would explain why subjects who were allowed to swear experienced significantly increased heart rates compared to those who did not swear. Increased heart rate is another consequence of epinephrine production.
Why would we consider swearing to be a type of attack? Could it be that swearing is a form of emotional aggression? Eminent linguist Steven Pinker thinks so. He notes that swear words tend to deal with taboo subject matter, such as religious concepts, sexual depravity, bodily excretions, and tend to evoke negative emotions in listeners. Thus, to swear is to create an unpleasant image in the mind of another, as a sort of “psychological punch.”
In fact, swearing is often completely devoid of any actual semantic meaning. Consider the literal meaning of the expression “close the fucking door!” As Pinker points out, “it is not as if the door is engaged in copulation at that moment,” yet we intuitively understand what is being said. We know that the statement has both literal and emotional content. The point was not simply to request that the door be shut, but to additionally convey displeasure at the incompetent person who forgot to shut it.
Pinker hypothesizes that many such expressions did make semantic sense at one time, but that as the emotional content in swear words becomes diluted, they tend to get replaced with stronger terms. For example “close the damned door” does have a distinguishable literal meaning. However, with the decline of religion, the term “damned” lost much of its sting and got replaced with more impactful terms at the expense of syntax.
Like Stephens, Pinker feels that swearing is rooted in our evolutionary history. “I suspect that swearing taps into a defensive reflex in which an animal who is suddenly injured or confined erupts in a furious struggle, accompanied by an angry vocalization, to startle and intimidate an attacker,” he said in an interview with Scientific American.
To support this hypothesis, Pinker points to evidence that evolutionarily older brain structures involved in emotion (namely, parts of the limbic system) seem to play a large role in the act of and perception of swearing. Patients with damage to areas of the brain related to higher order processing, as well as to complex thought and language abilities, maintain the ability to swear even though they may not be able to say anything else. Some patients with damage to the limbic system are unable to swear even though they maintain otherwise normal speech abilities.
Additionally, brain studies show that when confronted with a swear word, parts of the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, become activated. These areas also become active when we are confronted with other emotionally-charged stimuli (such as an angry face or sabre tooth tiger), which supports the “emotional punch” theory of swearing.
While swearing may be designed to produce a negative emotion in its target, it also seems to, at least in the case of Richard Stevens’ study, decrease the perception of pain, which, if you’re being attacked by a giant sloth, is arguably a good thing. However, swearing is also thought to serve many other purposes besides simple pain reduction in our culture. For example, a 2007 British study by professor Yehuda Baruch of the University of East Anglia found that swearing tends to boost workplace morale by allowing employees to vent their frustrations and create a sense of camaraderie. Primatologist Frans De Waal argues that swearing may even decrease acts of physical aggression by allowing angry individuals to vent their irritation vocally rather than physically.
To summarize, it would seem that swearing is more natural than your elementary principal would have had you believe, and in the right context, could even be beneficial. So the next time you’re getting your chest waxed, drop a heavy object on your foot or are for some inexplicable reason forced to watch Nancy Grace, don’t forget to try out some of your favourite profanities.