Strange but true: Swearing helps with getting through pain


Q: Even if your Mom didn't go in much for profanity, on what occasion might she have dropped her guard and let'er rip?

A:When she was giving birth to you, says psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University, UK, as reported by Tiffany O'Callaghan in "New Scientist" magazine. The brain processes swear words differently from more genteel vocabulary, and when an expletive is fired at us, it can feel like a slap to the face.

"It's almost like a physical act," adds psychologist Timothy Jay at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and that visceral feeling might explain why we swear when we're in pain.

This insight came to Stephens in the maternity ward where his wife was giving birth to their child: "She was in agony, and she was swearing her head off." Yet each time the contractions eased, she apologized to the doctors and nurses, Stephens recalls. But she needn't have. "Swearing is a completely normal part of giving birth," the hospital staff told them.

Intrigued, Stephens asked some undergraduates to take part in an ice water test, where they had to hold one hand in freezing cold water while reciting either polite descriptive words or rude obscenities. Those shouting obscenities held their hands in the icy water longer and reported experiencing less pain, suggesting that swear words trigger the body's fight-or-flight response and its accompanying pain tolerance.

Q:"To V or not to V, that is the question." With apologies to William Shakespeare, what does this have to do with the winter Olympic sport of ski jumping?

A:In 1985, Swedish jumper Jan Boklov experimented with a new technique that he felt would improve the distance of his jumps, reports "Mental Floss" magazine. "Instead of keeping his skis parallel while in the air, Boklov spread their tips to form a kind of V shape." But when he used the trick in competitions, judges docked him style points, and competitors mocked his bad form. In time, however, wind tunnel tests proved that jumping V-style generated 28 percent more lift, spurring longer jumps. Now, everyone was copying the style. And though Boklov never achieved Olympic fame, he did go on to win a gold medal in the 1989 World Cup.

Q: Can you brainy bipeds (two-leggers) psych out the quadruped leg movement sequence symbolized by LH, LF, RH, RF? Hint: Watch a walking horse or bull or elephant or take a careful look at your dog sauntering over to its drinking bowl.

A:When four-legged mammals (except primates) go for a walk, their footfall sequence is first left hind leg (LH) and left fore leg (LF), then right hind leg (RH) and right fore leg (RF), back and forth, says Will Hunt in "Discover" magazine. This four-legged mammalian gait affords maximum stability, yet the complexity of this walking matrix confused many artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Now, a recent study by Gabor Horvath, a biological physicist at Eotvos University in Hungary, shows that "cave painters understood the laws governing animal motion." Horvath's team collected nearly 1,000 images of walking quadrupeds, dividing them into works before and after 1887, when pioneering photographer Edward Muybridge's stop-motion studies of animals definitively settled the matter.

"The most reliably accurate artists were the cave painters," Hunt remarks. "Of the 39 prehistoric paintings of walking horses, bulls, elephants and other quadrupeds that the researchers examined, fewer than half were erroneous," compared with an overall 84 percent error rate before Muybridge.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at


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