Swearing outbursts 'can lessen pain'

Sunday 12 July 2009 08:06 BST

There could be a good reason why hitting one's thumb with a hammer is likely to unleash the Gordon Ramsey within, say scientists.

F-word outbursts, like those the celebrity chef is famous for, can actually lessen pain, according to the researchers.

Swearing may be a good recipe for coping with physical knocks, their study suggests.

Scientists at Keele University in Staffordshire wondered whether swearing might have a psychological effect that increased pain tolerance.

To test the theory they asked 66 volunteer students to submerge a hand into a tube of iced water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice.

At the start of the experiment, participants were asked for "five words you might use after hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer". They were told to use the first swear word on the list.

The study was then carried out again, but instead of swearing the students were asked to use one of "five words to describe a table".

Volunteers were able to keep their hands in the freezing water for significantly longer when they swore.

At the same time their heart rates accelerated and their pain-perception, as measured with a questionnaire, reduced.

The scientists believe swearing triggers a "fight-or-flight" response and heightens aggression.

They wrote in the journal NeuroReport: "Everyday examples of aggressive swearing include the football manger who 'psychs up' players with expletive-laden team talks, or the drill sergeant barking orders interspersed with profanities.

"Swearing in these contexts may serve to raise levels of aggression, downplaying feebleness in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo".

Dr Richard Stephens, who led the study, said: "Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon. It taps into emotional brain centres and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain.

Our research shows one potential reason why swearing developed and why it persists."

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