24th Feb 2013
The Science of Swearing
Swearing is generally taboo, due to the assumption that it has the power to corrupt and harm. But there is little data that demonstrates a simple word can cause harm—rather, it’s the social constructs around the word that harms people, so instead of dismissing swearing is universally wrong, it’s more useful to ask the question: why do we swear? What does it achieve? It can often be used positively, in jokes, storytelling, stress management, as a substitute for physical aggression, to express anger, joy, surprise, pain—and it’s even believed that swearing could serve an important function in relieving pain. “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. Stephens measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in freezing water—and one group was allowed to repeat their favourite swear word, while another group wasn’t. It was found that the swearing students reported less pain and endured an average of 40 seconds longer in the cold water. It’s thought that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved in these physical effects of swearing—while normal language relies on the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives could rely on ancient structures deep in the right hemisphere. One of these structures is the amygdala, which can trigger a fight-or-flight response and help us become less pain-sensitive. Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University agrees, commenting: “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.” So swearing might not only be a cathartic exercise—it may have evolved to save our lives.

The Science of Swearing

Swearing is generally taboo, due to the assumption that it has the power to corrupt and harm. But there is little data that demonstrates a simple word can cause harm—rather, it’s the social constructs around the word that harms people, so instead of dismissing swearing is universally wrong, it’s more useful to ask the question: why do we swear? What does it achieve? It can often be used positively, in jokes, storytelling, stress management, as a substitute for physical aggression, to express anger, joy, surprise, pain—and it’s even believed that swearing could serve an important function in relieving pain. “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. Stephens measured how long college students could keep their hands immersed in freezing water—and one group was allowed to repeat their favourite swear word, while another group wasn’t. It was found that the swearing students reported less pain and endured an average of 40 seconds longer in the cold water. It’s thought that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved in these physical effects of swearing—while normal language relies on the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives could rely on ancient structures deep in the right hemisphere. One of these structures is the amygdala, which can trigger a fight-or-flight response and help us become less pain-sensitive. Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University agrees, commenting: “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.” So swearing might not only be a cathartic exercise—it may have evolved to save our lives.

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