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Swearing to Make the Pain Go Away

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A new study shows that swearing might help to mute the pain of an injury. “It taps into emotional brain centers and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain.” The researchers enlisted 64 undergraduate volunteers and had them submerge their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice. . . . Contrary to what the researcher expected, the volunteers kept their hands submerged longer while repeating the swear word. Dr. Richard Stephens and his colleagues suggest that swearing may increase aggression (seen in accelerated heart rates), which downplays weakness to appear stronger or more macho.

I don’t know how much money was spent on this study, but I’m sure it was a lot. All these geniuses had to do was watch the hospital scene in the film I Remember Mama (1948) where Uncle Chris, played loudly by Oskar Homolka, teaches his grandnephew Arnie a few Norwegian “swear words” to counter the pain of a recent operation. Arnie is told to say one of the swear words when the pain is bad, and the other one when it’s really bad. The old Norwegian knew something that these scientists have only recently discovered. In fact, when the doctor asks Uncle Chris if he is a physician, the outspoken and gruff Norwegian states emphatically, “I’m a better physician than most doctors!” How true.

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