If you’ve ever banged your toe and then yelled an expletive, you’ll already know part of the reason for swearing’s appeal – it helps us cope with pain. Psychologists have actually tested this under controlled conditions in the lab. When volunteers swore repeatedly while plunging their hand in icy water, they were able keep it there for longer compared to other volunteers who tried the challenge in silence or while uttering a non-swear word.
One theory is that swearing has this effect because it triggers an emotional reaction in the brain and body. Consistent with this, swearing raises your heart rate and increases your sweat levels, both of which are signs of your body shifting into a survival ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Other findings hint at the unique way that our brains process swear words. For instance, people with brain damage affecting their ability to speak (known as aphasia) will sometimes have preserved the ability to swear.
A related finding is that swearing can even boost your strength, perhaps because it makes the effort easier; in another study, volunteers displayed stronger handgrip strength when they swore during the test.
So, swearing boosts our pain resistance and strength, but you might want to use this temporary superpower sparingly. More recent research has found that the pain-busting benefits of yelling naughty words is disappointingly diminished for people who swear lot in everyday life.
- Do all cultures have swear words?
- Why is it rude to point?
- How did languages evolve?
- What happens in our brain when we learn languages?
Every week on BBC World Service, CrowdScience answers listeners’ questions on life, Earth and the Universe. Tune in every Friday evening on BBC World Service, or catch up online at bbcworldservice.com/crowdscience
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.