A team from Blighty's Keele University has confirmed what all of us who've ever hit our thumbs with a hammer have known for years - that swearing can relieve pain.
To confirm this foul-mouthed finding, psychologist Richard Stephens and his colleagues asked 67 student volunteers to stick their hands in icy water and either gob off with the expletive of their choice or "chant a neutral word", as Scientific American puts it.
Those indulging in cussing said they suffered "less pain and on average endured about 40 seconds longer".
The explanation may lie in "evolutionarily ancient structures" in the right half of the brain, such as the amygdala, which triggers a "fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain".
Unlike non-offensive language, which "relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of the brain", cussing appears to be linked to the amygdala - a fact suggested by a rise in the subjects' heart rates when they swore.
Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard University explained that bad language may form part of an animalistic defence reflex. He said: "I suspect that swearing taps into a defensive reflex in which an animal that is suddenly injured or confined erupts in a furious struggle, accompanied by an angry vocalization, to startle and intimidate an attacker."
Richard Stephens agreeably concluded: "Swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason why we do it. I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear."
The team's findings are published in the journal NeuroReport. The abstract is here. ®