I have a friend who’s used profanity all of three times in her life. She prides herself on finding alternative ways to voice her displeasure. I, on the other hand, throw around curse words like it’s my job. I find them remarkably adept at expressing the extremity of my emotions, whether it’s frustration, anger, happiness, or utter surprise.
Though parents and the FCC prefer to regulate profanity and keep it a societal taboo, most of us learn to embrace it anyway. And according to one recent study, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice to erase it from our lives.
Swearing Makes Pain Tolerable
A 2009 study published in NeuroReport found a link between using profanity and an increased tolerance for pain. At Keele University in Britain, researchers asked sixty-seven participants to submerge their hands in ice-cold water for as long as they could. The first time, they could repeat a curse word of their choice over and over. The second time, they were only allowed to use a word that described a table.
Those who cursed were able to keep their hands in the water for longer than the ones who used other words. Foul-mouthed men lasted almost a minute more than other men in the study; women showed even more of an improvement in pain tolerance when they cursed. So there’s apparently a good reason why getting hurt makes us want to scream an expletive or two—but where does that inclination come from?
A National Pastime
We pick up bad words from a young age. If we’re not introduced to them by our parents (even the most well-intentioned parents let bad words slip from time to time), pop culture and friends on the playground are happy to fill us in. Since our minds are efficient sponges at that time, we soak up language—the good and the bad—quite quickly. We parrot back what our ears pick up, but we don’t learn the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of certain words until a little bit later.
The taboo nature of curse words hasn’t stopped us from readily adopting them. A survey conducted by the Associated Press and Ipsos in 2006 concluded that almost three-quarters of Americans often overhear some form of profanity every day. There’s even a Web site called Cursebird that tracks just how many times people use them on Twitter. (The answer: multiple times a minute, with the f-word and the s-word currently being the most utilized words.) Clearly we find plenty of situations that necessitate expletives, but why we’re drawn to them isn’t just society’s fault. Even though we’re told that these words are bad and that we shouldn’t use them, our brains tell us a different story.
Bad Words Affect Our Brains
When we speak, the left hemisphere of the brain is usually where most of the action takes place. But when we’re profane, the amygdala, a neuron cluster located in the right half of the brain that’s responsible for our fight-or-flight response system, gets activated as well. The amygdala is part of the body’s limbic system, which has a hand in controlling emotions. When we’re in a situation that causes distress or alarm and prompts our bodies into fight-or-flight mode, our heart rates increase and we’re able to withstand more pain than usual.
In the aforementioned ice water study, researchers noted that the volunteers’ heart rates increased as a result of the pain, which suggests the amygdala was coming into play. In a way, cursing as a reflexive response to an attack of pain is a part of our biology. Like our racing hearts or lessened pain sensitivity, it’s our way of dealing with situations that cause us extreme discomfort. Because they’re so emotionally loaded in our society, the brain learns to recognize them as tools of release, whether it’s pent-up aggression or physical suffering.
The Universality of Cursing
Of course, profanity isn’t just for angry tirades. Timothy Jays, author of Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech, writes that “cursing permits a speaker to express strong emotions and/or produce an emotional impact on a listener.” Either way, it’s a speedy way to make our thoughts on a subject—how great or terrible something is, the next action we think someone should take, just how painful that toe-stubbing was, etc.—known to everyone around us.
Cursing is freeing, it’s efficient, and our brains seem to respond favorably to it, so maybe it shouldn’t get such a bad rap after all. It’s vulgar and crass, but some moments require the kind of force such words bring. However, the more we say them, the less emotionally powerful they become, which means they’ll have less of an effect on our pain tolerance. Swearing, like most fun activities in life, should be enjoyed in moderation.