SWEARING occurs in most cultures – people swear to let off steam, or to shock or insult others. It is also a common response to a painful experience. We’ve all done it: after stubbing our toe, or hitting our thumb with a hammer, we draw a sharp breath and mutter a swear word. Until now, though, whether swearing actually alters our perception of pain had not been investigated. But according to a new study due to be published next month in the journal NeuroReport, swearing increases pain tolerance, enabling us to withstand at least one form of pain for longer.
Some pain theorists regard our tendency to swear after hurting ourselves to be a form of “pain-related catastrophising” – an exaggerated negative mind set which is brought to bear during a painful experience. As such, swearing is thought of as a maladaptive response, which contributes to the intensity of the pain and emotional distress. Given that it is such a common response, Richard Stephens and his colleagues at the Keele University School of Psychology set out test the hypothesis that swearing would decrease pain tolerance and increase pain perception.
THE term ‘hypnosis’ was coined by the Scottish physician James Braid in his 1853 book Neurypnology. Braid defined hypnosis as “a peculiar condition of the nervous system, induced by a fixed and abstracted attention of the mental and visual eye”. He argued that it was a form of “nervous sleep”, and tried to distinguish his theory from that of the mesmerists, who believed that the effects of hypnosis were mediated by a vital force, or animal magnetism.
Because of mesmerism, and its association with stage entertainment and charlatanry, hypnosis was regarded with skepticism for much of its history. In recent years, though, it has come under the scrutiny of cognitive neuroscientists, and is now thought of as an altered state of consciousness – sometimes referred to as being trance-like – which is associated with increased suggestibility, enhanced imagery and reduced reality testing. We know that hypnosis can profoundly affect the mind and behaviour, so that thought processes and perceptions can be easily manipulated, but the underlying neural mechanisms are poorly understood.
According to a new study of the neural mechanisms of hypnosis-induced paralysis, Braid’s definition was remarkably accurate. The study, published in the journal Neuron, demonstrates that hypnosis does indeed lead to increased activity in areas of the brain involved in attention, as well as in other areas involved in mental imagery and self-awareness. It can therefore exert control over bodily movements by enhancing mental representations of the self (or self-imagery) and focusing attention on them.