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Of bees and the health benefits of swearing

The F-bombs that an upstate New York TV anchor let loose after getting stung by a bee a few days ago while taping a news webcast (see bleeped video above) may have been just what the doctor ordered.

For, as a study that appeared in the August 5 issue of the journal NeuroReport found, cursing can actually be good for you.

It can help relieve pain.

In fact, psychologist Richard Stephens of England’s Keele University, who led the study, made the following unequivocal recommendation to Scientific American readers after his research was published (parents, cover your children’s eyes): “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”

The study asked 67 student volunteers (men and women) to stick their hands in ice-cold water. Twice. During one of the hand dunkings they were told to repeat an expletive of their choice. During the other, they were instructed to utter an innocuous word — one they might use to describe a table.

When the volunteers swore, they reported less pain and were able to keep their hands in the water an average of 40 seconds longer.

Swearing failed to work, however, for one subgroup: male volunteers who “catastrophized” their pain — who thought that putting their hand into icy water would be extremely painful.

Why does swearing subdue pain? A clue might lie in another finding from the study: When the volunteers swore, their heart rate increased. This suggests, noted the study’s authors, that swearing may induce a fight-or-flight response, a physical phenomenon known to reduce sensitivity to pain.

As for those of you whose everyday word choices make you sound like a David Mamet character: Don’t overdo it. The more you swear, the less effective the words become.


Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Karl Pearson-Cater on 09/01/2009 - 03:03 pm.

    “The more you swear, the less effective the words become.”

    Wow! I knew swearing could help in certain situations, but did not think one could overdo it! Good to know.

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