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Uploaded:2017-08-17
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If you've ever been chastised for erupting into profanity after stubbing your toe in the middle of the night, science has your back on this one.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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Sources:
http://www.mzellner.com/page4/files/2009-stephens.pdf
http://time.com/4602680/profanity-research-why-we-swear/
https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-05/bps-sac050117.php
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha9h2KPnL7U https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BcdY_wSklo
[INTRO ♪] [bleep], [bleep], and [bleep]!

When you mess up, or get angry or hurt, you may find yourself reaching for some words that ... well, your mom might not be so proud of. But regardless of what you were told as a kid, sometimes swearing just feels like the right way to deal with things.

Psychologists are just starting to research why we swear and whether or not it could be helpful, so there’s still a lot we don’t know about how it affects our brains. But it turns out that as far as language goes, curse words are pretty powerful. A lot of that power comes from taboo concepts, like sex or disrespect for authority.

I mean, how many can you think of that aren’t in at least one of those categories? Wait! Don’t answer that.

The point is, when we swear, we’re invoking concepts that are traditionally viewed as shocking to really drive home what we’re feeling. They’re kind of like honking the horn on your car: they get a lot of attention, really fast. So it’s possible that when we swear after hurting ourselves, we’re trying to grab that attention and emphasize that we’re overwhelmed by the pain.

Almost like a yelping animal, we spit out something that communicates not just that we’re hurt, but that it’s almost too much to handle. But, as is often the case with psychology, that’s probably not the whole picture. Even though research on swearing is pretty limited, one experiment suggested that swearing could also be a way to protect us from pain.

The main study on this was published in 2009 in the journal NeuroReport, where researchers tested whether swearing had an effect on how people perceived pain. They had 67 undergraduates from Keele University in the UK dunk their hands in a tub of icy cold water, then measured whether swearing changed how long they could keep their hand in the tub. Subjects submerged their hands twice: once while swearing like a sailor, and once while repeating a neutral, non-sweary word.

Each time, they were asked to rate the pain they’d experienced, as well as fill out some surveys on anxiety and fear of pain. The researchers found that swearing every few seconds helped people keep their hand in the tub for longer than when they weren’t allowed to swear. All the subjects also reported less pain when swearing.

So the authors concluded that swearing increased people’s tolerance to pain. Some researchers think this could be because swearing taps into parts of the brain that control our emotions. Something about saying words so emotionally loaded and taboo may cause an emotion that stops us from feeling so anxious about being in pain, which could make that tub of icy water feel less threatening.

Basically, swearing helps people separate their fear of pain from their experience of pain. Instead, the emotions people feel when they’re swearing trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which throws their body into fight-or-flight mode. Instead of being distracted by fear, they prepare to either take on the threat or run for their lives.

That 2009 study found that people’s heart rates were higher while they were swearing, which supports the idea that they were experiencing fight-or-flight. Their bodies were full of adrenaline, as though they were confronting a dangerous situation. The exact swear-induced-emotion that pulls people into that state is still up for debate, although the authors of the study suggested that it might be aggression.

And then those same researchers did another study earlier this year, and their results are calling that whole fight-or-flight thing into question. The team figured that if swearing was triggering the fight or flight response, athletes would perform better while swearing. And they found that athletes’ power and grip strength improved when they summoned up those swears, just like they expected.

But the heart rate changes just weren’t there— they weren’t seeing physical evidence of an increased fight-or-flight response that would help separate fear from pain. So, we’re sort of back to square one. We have evidence that swearing does increase your ability to tolerate pain, and it does improve your physical performance in exercise.

But we don’t know exactly why. As with so many topics in psychology, and language for that matter, the reasons for swearing are complicated. So we’ll have to do more studies to get the whole story on why potty mouths kill pain.

But until then, the next time you step on a LEGO ... we won’t judge you if you let loose. And if you’re interested in watching some of the SciShow team and friends let loose while trying to amaze each other with science, you can check us out on what we’ll just call Holy [bleep]ing Science, the science podcast that is very much not for children. [OUTRO ♪].