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The science of why bad words feel so good during painful moments

According to a new study investigating how swearing affects our pain tolerance, it really has to be a bad word to do any good.

“There’s nothing that can beat a good old swear word,” lead researcher Olly Robertson told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. 

Most of us have let the occasional curse word slip when experiencing pain. Previous scientific studies have shown that swearing can actually increase a person’s pain tolerance. But in polite company, we may try and substitute those swears with a similar-sounding word.

Robertson and her colleagues at the Swear Lab at Keele University in the U.K. wanted to understand what it was about swear words that has this analgesic effect on our pain, and if those fake swears are convincing substitutes for our brains.

Their research is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

‘Fouch’ and ‘twizpipe’ just won’t cut it

To find out how swearing affects pain tolerance, Robertson and her colleague, psychologist Richard Stephens, invented two fake swear words, ‘fouch’ and ‘twizpipe.’ 

“We hypothesized that perhaps ‘fouch’ might help in the same way that swear words help because it sounds very similar, it’s got that ‘FFF-CHH’ sound at the end,” said Robertson, a post doctoral research assistant in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford.

She adds that ‘twizpipe’ was chosen because it represented another hypothesis about why swears work — because they sound funny.

“There was an idea that perhaps swear words help because they’re hilarious, and they help distract you in that way.”

Robertson and Stephens then had 92 participants immerse their hands in a tub of ice cold water for as long as they could — which is a harmless, but painful experience. These participants were told to randomly repeat one of four words every three seconds – either a conventional swear word (in this case, the familiar ‘f-word’), a neutral word (the word ‘solid’) and the words ‘fouch’ and ‘twizpipe.’ Throughout, the participants gave ratings of their pain perception, emotion, humour, and distraction levels, as well as had their hearts monitored.

A video on the research prepared by Nurofen, a company that produces analgesics, which also helped fund the research

The new ‘fake’ swear words had the exact same effect on pain threshold and pain tolerance as the neutral word. However, saying the genuine f-word was linked with a 32 percent increase in pain threshold, and a 33 percent increase in pain tolerance.

“When we had people swearing with their hand in the water, they could tolerate the cold water for longer by up to 18 seconds, which doesn’t sound like a lot but actually, when you need to get yourself through this horrible experience 18 seconds is a long time,” said Robertson.

Swearing could activate fight-or-flight

There are two predominant theories as to why swear words have this effect on pain. The first is that by saying something that is typically forbidden, the brain’s fight-or-flight response is activated.

“Swearing gives you that little bit of a jolt, it helps your heart beat faster, it helps your respiration rate increase, and so it gives you that power, that adrenaline to get through a stressful period,” said Robertson.

It’s completely dependent on what you’ve grown up with, what you think is acceptable, and what isn’t – Olly Robertson

A second idea was that swearing triggers the brain’s rest and relaxation response, which comes after a heightened period of stress.

“As the research stands we don’t really know whether they are exclusive, whether they work together, or what’s going on. And that’s really exciting for us as researchers in the Swear Lab.”

Not all swears are the same

In this study, the f-word was the swear of choice. In previous research, Robertson has observed that particular word tends to be a favourite amongst English-speakers and non-English speakers alike.

Dutch daredevil Wim Hof is celebrated for his tolerance to ice baths. Could swearing be part of his secret? (NY Daily News via Getty Images)

“There’s something about that word, that we love, that’s cross-cultural. And I just think that’s quite beautiful in its own way,” said Robertson.

But when it comes to pain tolerance, the words that work best are the words that are the most taboo, or hold the most power. “It’s completely dependent on what you’ve grown up with, what you think is acceptable, and what isn’t,” she said. 

“There’s no point saying the f-word if you actually preferred the b-word or the c-word. You’ve got to use what’s good for you and what you think will work.”

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz

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