Curses! For Medicinal Use Only

Feedloader (Clickability)

Isn't it great when science justifies your vices? Never mind all the research on the purported health benefits of red wine or chocolate. My new favorite sin-rationalization study shows that swearing is good for you. It seems to decrease pain.

This is one of those slap-your-forehead, why-didn't-I-think-of-that studies. People have been screaming curse words when they're in pain since well before the dawn of social science, but a new study in NeuroReport seems to be the first to address whether the swearing helps the hurt. The answer wasn't obvious: the authors point out that swearing might amplify the emotional experience of pain and make it even worse.

In one of this year's more absurd experimental designs (and a strong contender for the IgNobel Awards), Richard Stephens of Keele University and colleagues had volunteers dip their hands in buckets of ice water. That's not the absurd part. The "cold pressor pain tolerance test" is a standard lab procedure for inducing pain—it's safe and cheap, and pain tolerance is easily measured as the amount of time people can stand to keep their hands in the water. The fun part is that the researchers asked volunteers to repeatedly speak either a neutral word of their choice or a swear word of their choice. (I know what my choice would be.) The people who swore were able to withstand the ice bath for a longer time.

The researchers have some ideas about why swearing helps—in the study, curse words increased heart rate relative to the innocuous words, so perhaps swearing activates the fight-or-flight response, which can decrease pain perception. In any case, the next time you pound your thumb while hammering, shouting your curse of choice might be the best medicine.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.