Sorry, moms and dads. Scientific studies about the benefits of four-letter words just keep coming. Cursing can reduce stress and increase strength and pain tolerance.
Scientists don’t fully understand the reasons behind these phenomena, but they’re onto some clues. Benjamin Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, talked with Vice about swearing and the reduction of stress.
Benefits from swearing are related to our fight-or-flight response.
“It helps you pick the right thing to do when expressing strong emotion,” Bergen said. By uttering words that are taboo, we’re actually taking a step toward deciding how to handle a situation.
You might be surprised to learn that curse words come from a completely different part of the brain than most language. “Spontaneous emotional speech” originates in the basal ganglia, which is a more primitive part of the brain. All vertebrates have a basal ganglia (which leads us to believe that most animals would curse if they had vocal cords).
Researchers have proven that swearing can also increase strength and pain tolerance.
Richard Stephens of Keele University has conducted extensive studies on the effects of cursing. Two of his more interesting findings are that cursing can make you both stronger and more tolerant of pain.
In the strength study, Stephens had participants complete a test of anaerobic power—once after cursing and once after not cursing. The participants performed better in two measures of strength—one on an exercise bike and one a handgrip test—after they’d been given free rein to curse.
Stephens still does not understand why cursing increases people’s strength. He believes it has something to do with the body’s sympathetic nervous system. However, he could not find significant differences in heart rate or other quantifiable body responses that might have explained the differences in performances.
“So quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered,” Stephens said. “We have yet to understand the power of swearing fully.”
In a separate test, Stephens showed that swearing helps people better tolerate pain.
In this study, Stephens asked participants to plunge their hands in a bucket of ice water. When participants repeated a swear word, they could stand the icy water for longer than when they repeated a neutral word.
There was one caveat: People who cursed more frequently in their daily lives experienced less of a painkilling effect. “Swearing is a very emotive form of language and our findings suggest that overuse of swear words can water down their emotional effect,” Stephens said.
That tidbit should console parents. If your children claim the right to curse in the name of its health benefits, remind them that they should do it less frequently to get the biggest effect.
Stephens may not understand how cursing unlocks these health benefits, but he plans to continue studying the topic. “We are just scratching the surface of how swearing can influence our emotions and how it can have impact in different situations,” he said.
“Whether swearing has beneficial effects in other contexts is something we would like to explore in the future.”