Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cursing to Ease the Pain

As stated in the heading, this blog has an emphasis on language. And it really doesn't specify much beyond that. It could be any language: English, French, German... It could be the language of poetry, the law, or money. Language encompasses many things.

This time I'll talk about blue language, purple prose, sailor talk - otherwise known as curses, profanity, or swearing. And because I am a fan of cuss words, this probably won't be the last time I touch on them in this blog.

We all know what the seven dirty words are (even so, read the link for a brief look at George Carlin, profanity, and the FCC). But why do we say them? And why is it sometimes so hard to stop ourselves from saying them? This article and study analysis published by Scientific American has some of the answer to this question: Psychologists have found that swearing may serve an important function in relieving pain.

According to the article, the study measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in cold water. During the exercise, they could repeat an expletive of their choice or a neutral word. The abstract of the study says "Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing." When swearing, the 67 student volunteers reported less pain and they were able to endure the cold on average about 40 seconds longer.
Although cursing is notoriously decried in the public debate, researchers are now beginning to question the idea that the phenomenon is all bad. "Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it," says psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England, who led the study. And indeed, the findings point to one possible benefit: "I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear," he adds.
An excellent quote from the Scientific American article. But my favorite is from Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University, who compares the pain/swearing situation to what happens in the brain of a cat that somebody accidentally sat on:
"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," he says.
Earlier studies have shown that unlike normal language, which relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives reside in and activate ancient evolutionarily structures buried deep inside the right half. Basically, there are indications that swearing could be one of the oldest forms of language. Ancient man in the Stone Age was likely screaming expletives when he stubbed his toe thousands of years ago.

Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has studied our use of profanities for the past 35 years, says cursing is more than just aggression:
"It allows us to vent or express anger, joy, surprise, happiness," he remarks. "It's like the horn on your car, you can do a lot of things with that, it's built into you."
A horn on our car? Alright.

But even as this study seems to encourage some four-letter words when the need arises, the article does caution against over-use. Like many words, they start to lose their potency when they are repeated too often. Swear too much, and they lose their emotional impact along with their pain-relieving properties.

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