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Oh, $%&@!

vdonely's picture


Expletives—those four letter words that many of us shout when in the midst of pain or fright. They are banned from our vocabulary until we are old enough to use them outside our parents hearing range. It is not socially acceptable to cry these words in public, yet they are some of the most popular terms in the dictionary. Furthermore, it has also been proven that cursing will reduce the feeling of physical pain. The question I ask is, how can using words which have no effect on the body, actually help a person physically? A children’s playground rhyme comes to mind: “Stick and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It is true, words can not hurt people—physically that is. However, up until now we did not realize that words, expletives specifically, can in fact help people.
            For many years it was probably assumed by most people that cursing did have some positive side effect, for why else would so many do it? A popular theory was that cursing was simply instinct, that we had no control over shouting the s-word. However, I do not think the analysis can just stop there. Why did cursing come to be believed as instinct? We are not biologically prone to shouting bad words, so why have people come to the conclusion that we have no control over it, that it is instinctual? The answer, I believe, lies in our childhood. From a young age we watch people around us respond to physical injury with “Shoot!” or “Damn!” or any number of other words. We watch these same people hop around, yelling these words, and then…they calm down. In our minds we connect the pain to the yelling to the eventual calm. In fact we see this same scenario so many times at our prime learning stage in life that it becomes ingrained in our heads at a young age. As we grow older, cursing after injury becomes more and more instinctual because that is what we were taught.
            After much speculation of whether cursing does reduce one’s perception of physical pain, psychologists at Keele University in Britain constructed an experiment. They picked 64 students and splitting them in half, asked 32 to pick a swear word of their choice. The other half were asked to think of a word used to describe a table. All the students were then told to immerse their non-dominant hand into a bucket of ice-cold water for as long as possible. The first group could shout their swear word of choice while the control group was only able to shout their word used to describe a table. In the end, the students who shouted the swear words lasted much longer in the bucket of water than the other students. As it turns out, cursing reduces the body’s perception of pain intensity and helps the person cope with something for longer.
            Richard Stephens, the lead psychologist in the experiment, stated that “Swearing increases your pain tolerance” (1). He goes on to say that their reason for the doing the experiment was to disprove the generally believed theory “inspired by anecdotal evidence from some pain researchers that swearing was actually a maladaptive behavior that only served to make things worse” (1). Obviously the experiment wipes out this theory and it makes sense when thought is put into it. When something hurts physically, first instinct is to make that pain go away. If cursing did not make the pain go away, but actually made it worse, why would so many people curse after sustaining an injury? Stephens adds, almost sarcastically, “that you hardly need a scientific study to bear out the theory” (1).
            Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University, believes that “humans are hardwired to swear cathartically” (1) distinguishing between that and descriptive cursing. He draws attention to similar situations in animals. When someone steps on a dog or cat’s tail, the animal yelps out in pain with a meow, bark, or growl. Humans are essentially the same way. Pinker says it best: "Swearing probably comes from a very primitive reflex that evolved in animals. In humans, our vocal tract has been hijacked by our language skills, so instead of barking out a random sound, we articulate our yelp with a word colored with negative emotion” (1). It is interesting to see that something as small as cursing after a stubbed toe is part of such a huge process as evolution.  It keeps humans in check, showing them that we are all part of a bigger picture.
            Researchers go on to say that the part of the brain connected with cursing, or yelping, is deep within which proves it primitiveness. The urge to yelp comes from this part of the brain, but the part of the brain which controls language and speech overwrites it and out comes a swear word. This explains why we do not run around yelping and growling when we are in physical pain. In this case, the only thing that separates us from animals is our ability to speak words; the signs of evolution are becoming clearer.
            Stephens and his fellow researchers also theorize that “swearing serves as an alarm bell, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response” (1). In the study, Stephens found that the people who shouted expletives had a higher heart rate (which is tied to the fight-or-flight response) than those who shouted words associated with a table. He summarizes the findings of the experiment stating, "In swearing, people have an emotional response, and it's the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain” (1). So really, it all boils down to your own emotions. When you shout words such as “hard” or “rectangular” there are not any emotional feelings connected to them. That is why these words do not release physical pain—they are meaningless. However from a young age, we are presented with curse words which are full of meaning, usually negative. But negative or positive, the emotions connected to these words help you out when you need it the most—in that first onslaught of pain.
            Stephens does caution us however on misusing swear words. He noted in his study that swearing reduced the perception of pain more strongly in women than in men. He attributes this to the fact that men swear more in daily life than women do. The more one swears, the less meaning and emotional ‘bang’ is attached to it. He advises people to stop cursing for minute things and to save them for when they are needed.
            Before tonight, I thought cursing was purely instinct. I had no idea that it was interwoven with evolution and was actually part of the huge picture of life. I have learned why we should curse words when we are in pain, but I have also learned something far larger. I now realize that the smallest and most unimportant things are probably tied in to a much bigger picture. Everything in life affects something else, which is the way of evolution. Nothing is unimportant.



Paul Grobstein's picture

the biology of %^#^&**@

Well, I'll be ***** ed.  Makes sense though.  And is an interesting example of the looping relationship between biology and culture.