Ten years ago, the Mythbusters tested a few potential myths about pain. In one experiment, they explored whether or not a person can withstand more pain by cursing, compared to just saying innocuous TV-friendly random words, like “baby hippos” and “schnitzel.” They had subjects (five Mythbusters employees) plunge their hands into ice water and see how long they could hold it there while shouting the PG words. They then took the test a second time, during which they could shout whatever profanity they wanted. They found that when they shouted obscenities, they increased the time they could keep their hands in the icy water by an average of 30%.
That, of course, is entertaining TV but it’s not science. I mean, it’s science but it’s not the hardcord kind of science that makes it into the literature. They only used five subjects in total (and had to replace two of them for going the max amount of time in the water on their first try). The subjects knew what they were testing, meaning it wasn’t blinded and the subjects could unintentionally skew the results. They also didn’t mix up whether the subjects could curse during the first or second test, nor did they have a control group, meaning that it’s possible that everyone would do better on their second try because they know what to expect and they know more or less how much time they have to beat.
So despite their positive result, we didn’t really know whether or not screaming profanity is the miracle cure-all we all hope it is. Until now. Scientists have finally developed the strict, double-blinded, controlled test we needed and the results are in: the Mythbusters were right. Fuck yeah!
OK so this isn’t actually the first time this kind of study has been done by working scientists. Back in 2009, a year before the Mythbusters episode aired, Richard Stephens and Olly Robertson of Keele University in the UK tested this idea with 59 students. It’s actually a lot like the Mythbusters’ set up, so I assume it was the inspiration: these subjects also all took two tests, the first choosing a non-swearing word to repeat and the second time choosing a swear word. Their hypothesis was that swearing would decrease pain tolerance and increase the perception of pain, but they found that the opposite was true. For most subjects, swearing increased their tolerance and decreased their pain perception (though for some men swearing made things worse — these men were prone to catastrophizing, or thinking that things are worse than they are). The scientists thought that maybe swearing forces attention away from the pain. However, they found that subjects experienced an increased heart rate when swearing, so they thought maybe swearing forced the body to have some kind of emotional response which led to increased pain tolerance.
So then they did a follow-up experiment in 2011, looking at a few things in more detail. One of their findings was that people who swear more in their everyday life get less of a benefit from swearing while plunging their hand into icy water. That does seem like maybe people who don’t swear often really do have an emotional response to swearing that helps them when they’re in pain.
Now it’s 2020, and the same scientists are still trying to work out why screaming profanities is so damned helpful. This time, instead of having subjects choose PG words, the researchers made up their own new swear words. To figure out if swearing was about distraction, they came up with the word “twizpipe,” which test subjects found humorous and therefore about as distracting as, say, “twatwaffle.” To test whether swearing was about emotional response, they came up with the word “fouch,” which subjects thought had the same emotionally stimulating sound as, say, “fuck.”
They ran the test again, and found that their made-up words did fuck-all to help with the pain. Like, not even a little bit. That suggests that there’s more to profanity than just the surface level.
Other research backs that up: it seems as though our brains categorize swear words in a completely different way than “safe” language. You probably already realized this, thanks to a rare type of tourette syndrome in which a person cannot help but shout taboo words at inappropriate times. This also happens in many people with traumatic brain injury. Doctors have even described instances of aphasia (the loss of speech due to brain injury) in which people can’t come up with any words except swears. Profanity must be accessed in a different way by our brains.
So, studying profanity in these ways is actually really important for understanding the brain and potentially helping people with brain injuries and disorders. For instance, if we know why these words are so special we can come up with interventions that will prevent a person from, for instance, shouting “fuckbucket” at their own wedding, or whatever. It’s amusing to talk about when it doesn’t actually affect you, but absolutely devastating to live with a condition like that.
For that reason, earlier this year researchers at Temple University published “Building the Perfect Curse Word: A Psycholinguistic Investigation of the Form and Meaning of Taboo Words,” in which they dissect various curse words to figure out what it is about each one that makes them so taboo to us. They found that emotional arousal was a common predictor of taboo-ness, as was the presence of a lot of consonants in a word.
They even dove into compound swears, inspired by the sudden popularity of the term “shit-gibbon” to describe politicians. In one of the best press releases I’ve ever read from Temple on this research, the scientists discuss the key to choosing the right companion word to make an effective compound swear: short nouns work well, like “fuck-rod” and “shit-stick”. They also say, “If you can put something in something, people think that’s a good compound, like -hat, -hole, -bucket.” So there you go. Any curse word plus any receptacle should be a winner. Bitch-bin. Ass-jar. Cock-vase?
Anyway, it’s fun research with a great possible end result of knowing more about the human brain and helping people with crippling disorders. It can also help you the next time you are plunging your hand into ice water. Yell some profanity! It will probably help, so long as you’re not like me and you already use profanity so much that your brain has already slotted “Fuck-sack” right into whatever chunk of grey matter is also responsible for remembering the word for “apple” and “grandmother.”
And by the way, it’s worth noting that this might not just work for physical pain. Another study, published in 2017, found that swearing can help for emotional pain as well — particularly, the pain of being excluded from a social group. Keep that one in mind the next time you’re having a particularly tough day — it might be a good idea to stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, and let out a nice, pain-mitigating “FUCK.”