A study published in NeuroReport
found that swearing can have a powerful pain-numbing effect, particularly for people who don’t normally curse. In the study, participants immersed their hands in icy water while being allowed to say their swear word(s) of choice. The group then repeated the exercise with neutral words instead of expletives. Researchers found that when swearing, the students were able to keep their hands in the freezing water for a longer amount of time - establishing a connection between a higher pain tolerance and swearing. They also found that the pain-killing effect was more potent among the participants who did not normally swear.
How can swearing reduce pain? Researchers believe that it triggers a fight-or-flight response, which activates the amygdala to prepare our body for attack, resulting in both a higher heart rate and tolerance for pain. Steven Pinker
has also backed this theory, writing in his book The Stuff of Thought,
“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.”
Swearing doesn’t just help us dull pain - it may have also served as an effective survival mechanism.