This Is Why Swearing Feels so F***Ing Good

March 13th 2016

Mouthing off doesn't always end well. While ill-placed profanity may get you in trouble at home, school or in the workplace, using swear words can also feel extremely cathartic.

ATTN: looked into the biology and psychology of swearing to see what makes using a bad word feel so good.

Swear words alleviate pain.

Using swear words can actually indicate that you have a large vocabulary. It also may lessen physical pain, according to a 2009 study published in NeuroReport.

The study, which asked participants to utter a swear word and a neutral, non-taboo word after submerging a hand in ice-cold water, found that swearing decreased physical pain.

"Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing," the study's authors wrote. The study also noted that, "The observed pain-lessening (hypoalgesic) effect may occur because swearing induces a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and pain perception."

In experiences of intense physical pain, immediate discomfort may overpower the pressure to abide by social norms about taboo language, Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, a professor of speech language pathology and audiology at New York University, observed, according to Tufts School of Medicine.

"In certain circumstances; either because we don’t bother to inhibit them or because the shock of pain or discomfort momentarily surpasses the safeguards; our impulse for obscenity takes over,” Van Lancker Sidtis said.

Why it feels good.

Neel Burton, M.D wrote on Psychology Today that swearing can also boost confidence, bond groups, act as a surrogate for physical violence, and even has physical benefits. "The health benefits of swearing include increased circulation, elevated endorphins, and an overall sense of calm, control, and well-being," Burton explained.

Neuroscientists have used neuroimagery from PET scans to look into amygdala activity, and found that it was "highly active when exposed to threatening words," Harvard Science Review reported.

"Swearing is a product of language processing areas in the left frontal and temporal lobes as well as emotional processing areas in the right cerebral hemisphere and subcortical structures, most notably the amygdala," according to a cognitive psychological investigation published in The Journal of Politeness Research in 2009.

Taboo language focuses on conveying the speaker's particular emotional state, study authors Timothy Jay and Kristen Janschewitz explained. They also noted that heightened activity in the brain's amygdala can signal enhanced attention and memory during the act of swearing as well as subjective emotional arousal.

“We say taboo words as soon as we speak and we continue to swear into old age even through dementia and senile decline," Jay said, according to the American Scholar.

Rebecca Roache, a Philosophy lecturer at the University of London, theorized that the way we feel about swearing relates less to the individual meaning of words than it does to rule-breaking and societal taboos. Roache wrote on Aeon:

"The existence of widely recognised [sic] taboos, then, offers a fast-track route for certain expressions to become widely offensive. It also provides a certain motivation for this to happen: breaking widely recognised [sic] taboos can (unlike calling people by the wrong name) be thrilling. Shocking people can sometimes be fun. Perhaps this helps explain why swear words tend to sound a certain way: the ‘quick and harsh’ sound of swear words may not alone be enough to account for their offensiveness, but it plausibly adds drama to the gleeful thrill of taboo-breaking, so it should not be surprising that it is the fierce-sounding references to taboos that are singled out to become swear words."

There's a social impact behind swearing.

How swearing effects your social experience depends on how the words are used, Jay explained in a 2009 article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Jay differentiated how swear words are used in hate speech, verbal abuse and sexual harassment, and their positive social outcomes "in jokes and humor, social commentary, sex talk, storytelling, in-group slang, and self-deprecation or ironic sarcasm in order to promote social harmony or cohesion."

Roache also notes that uttering swear words involves the speakers' audience, implying that they agree and offending them if and when they do not. Roache wrote:

"We might also add – as philosophers who write about slurs sometimes do – that by using a slur, a speaker attempts to make her audience complicit in her contempt, by signalling [sic] that she believes herself to be among people who share her contempt. This, too, is offensive to an audience who does not share this contempt, and is insulted to be taken to do so."

There are cases when swearing can be harmful, particularly when words are directed at specific individuals rather than used to disparage experiences. Harvard Science Review explained:

"On one hand, a study of child victims of obscene telephone calls showed that the children suffered severe psychological consequences from these calls (Larsen et al 2000). Verbal harassment and aggression has also been shown to have clear negative psychological effects (Vissing et al., 1991)."

It is important to consider who is listening and how language impacts other people before you let your potty mouth run wild.

[h/t Science of Us]

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