Swearing is generally considered a bad habit, but a recent study concludes that it might make you stronger.
Alongside breathing and paying tax, swearing is a universal part of the human experience. Whether you never swear at all or make a regular habit of it, swear words are all around us.
From giggling schoolchildren through to grumpy grandparents, swearing is rife. It has been documented in virtually every culture on earth, meaning that there must be more to swearing than meets the eye.
Although swearing is little more than an amusing aside to most people, it has been shown to have medical importance; it appears as part of a range of conditions.
For instance, excessive swearing can occur with traumatic brain injury and depression in the elderly. It is also associated with dementia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Most famously, perhaps, the use of swear words and other taboo phrases is a common component of Tourette syndrome.
For these reasons and more, many researchers take an interest in swearing and its potential physiological effects. As an example, a study published in 2009 found that swearing increased participants' ability to tolerate pain. Another study from 2011 found that swearing could increase people's ability to tolerate cold.
Why should this be so? The main theory is that, by swearing, we trigger our "fight or flight" response, which, in turn, reduces sensations of pain.
Swearing makes you strong
In the latest research to examine swearing, a team of scientists looked at what effect it might have on strength and during physical exertion.
Led by Dr. Richard Stephens, senior lecturer in psychology at Keele, the experiment had a two-pronged design: in the first arm of the experiment, 29 participants (aged 21 on average) endured a short but intense burst of activity on an exercise bike. Each participant had two run-throughs. In one, they were asked to repeat a swear word out loud, and during the other, they repeated a neutral word.
In the second portion of the study, 52 participants (aged 19.1 on average) carried out an isometric handgrip test. Each participant completed the test three times while repeating a swear word and three times repeating a neutral word.
Once the data had been analyzed, a clear effect was seen: swearing helped to produce more power in the anaerobic test and gave the participants a stronger grip.
Specifically, while swearing during the cycling exercise, peak power was increased by 24 watts, without increasing the perceived level of exertion. In the handgrip trial, swearing increased grip strength by an average of 2.1 kilograms.
How swearing might improve strength
The results of this innovative study were presented recently at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society in Brighton, U.K.
Although the findings might seem surprising, they back up conclusions from previous experiments conducted by the same group.
"We know from our earlier research that swearing makes people more able to tolerate pain. A possible reason for this is that it stimulates the body's sympathetic nervous system - that's the system that makes your heart pound when you are in danger."
Dr. Richard Stephens
Stimulating the sympathetic nervous system would have the effect of increasing strength, too, as the team found. However, if the sympathetic nervous system was behind the increases in strength, there would be other changes that the researchers would expect to see - for example, in heart rate variability, skin conductance, and blood pressure. Contrary to expectations, changes in these parameters were not observed in the current study.
This leaves the team with further questions to answer in future research. "So quite why it is that swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered," Dr. Stephens says. "We have yet to understand the power of swearing fully."