Swearing, Pain and the "Oh my God!" Phenomenon

Given my interests in the psychology of profanity, my friend David at ACU sent me a link to this article in the Boston Globe.

The article discusses a recent study published in NeuroReport by Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston. Their paper is entitled Swearing as a response to pain. Here's the abstract from the study:

Although a common pain response, whether swearing alters individuals' experience of pain has not been investigated. This study investigated whether swearing affects cold-pressor pain tolerance (the ability to withstand immersing the hand in icy water), pain perception and heart rate. In a repeated measures design, pain outcomes were assessed in participants asked to repeat a swear word versus a neutral word. In addition, sex differences and the roles of pain catastrophising, fear of pain and trait anxiety were explored. Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing. However, swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophise. 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.
Neuroimaging research suggests that we store the denotations and connotations of words in different parts of the brain. For example, "sexual intercourse," "making love," and "f**king" all have the same denotation (i.e., they all point to the same activity). This denotation appears to be stored in the cerebral cortex (temporal and frontal lobes). However, the connotation (emotional coloring) of each word is very different. These emotional overtones appear to be stored in the limbic system of the brain. This is why, when we hit our thumbs with a hammer, we involuntarily curse. The word spits out from the limbic system without the forethought and control of the frontal cortex (which inhibits the impulses of the limbic system).

Given this close association between pain, emotion and profanity this new research is not surprising, but it does suggest that profanity might have a coping function, a means to activate the fight or flight response in the face of injury.

Here's a thought balloon about all this. Given the association between emotion and swearing what happens when pleasure and joy are activated? That is, in the NeuroReport research we see swearing in response to negative emotion. But what about positive emotion? Might this be the explanation for why people, even irreligious people, exclaim "Oh my God!" when happy or surprised? Seriously, watch a reality TV show where someone is incredibly and joyously surprised. People just say, "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" over and over again. How might that flip our notions of "taking the Lord's name in vain"? People involuntarily saying "God" when joyous?

Maybe saying "Oh my God" isn't a sin a all...

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One thought on “Swearing, Pain and the "Oh my God!" Phenomenon”

  1. The older I get, the more clueless I am about the book of Revelation (even though I've read through and studied it in detail a few times).
    I couldn't help but be reminded of these verses while reading this interesting article on swearing, pain and OMG:

    Revelation 16:8-10
    8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire.

    9 They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.

    10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony

    11 and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.

    Gary Y.

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