From ‘To raise your pain threshold, say ‘ow”, 20 March 2015, article in CNA
When they set out to study whether expressing pain vocally would help a person tolerate pain better, they did not anticipate that the study would create such an impression.
Findings from the study, conducted by National University of Singapore researchers with 56 local participants, was published in the Journal of Pain in February, and drew widespread media attention, with reports in The Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom and United States-based The Huffington Post.
Speaking at an interview yesterday, National University of Singapore Associate Professor Annett Schirmer, from the Department of Psychology, said: “This is not my area of study and we’re newbies. So I was very surprised about the feedback. I’m very happy that even while we’re not very experienced on this, we were able to make it meaningful for people.”
The study is the first of its kind, presenting evidence that saying “ow” improves pain tolerance.
When our ancestors were out foraging alone and twisted their ankles after stumbling over some rock in the jungle, vocalisation would have been helpful to alert tribe members to rush to their assistance. In other words, making some kind of noise during acute injury is a survival mechanism. Those who chose to cry out, be it ‘ow’, ‘ouch’ or ‘AYAYAY’, lived to fight for another day. Those who decided to grit their teeth and bear it, were eliminated from the gene pool.
To most of us crying out in pain seems like a perfectly natural reaction, a vocal equivalent of our innate mechanical reflex like how we shrink back after touching an open flame. In evolutionary terms, shouting to ‘increase the pain threshold’ seems counter-intuitive. Your hand shouldn’t be in ice water for longer than necessary, and going ‘ow, ow, ow’ to make the ordeal more tolerable is actually doing more harm to it than good. In the old days before anesthesia or chloroform, doctors required patients to bite on a piece of rag while amputating their abscessed thigh off. They should have just let them scream the house down, if what this study concludes is true.
It’s not the first time that someone has tested the effect of vocalisation on how well you can endure frostbite. Magicians Penn and Teller had volunteers curse and swear in the same setup, and found that unleashing obscenities extended the time spent with your hand in ice water by almost a minute, compared to not cussing like a filthy pirate.
The Mythbusters team did the same test, but limited the possible non-obscenity eructations to Apple Pie, Fish and Mutton. Unfortunately, the video below didn’t reveal if saying ‘fudge’ or ‘fish’ was just as effective as ‘fuck’.
In 2011, the Journal of Pain published the article titled: Swearing as a response to pain – Effect of daily swearing frequency, which suggests that cursing can be a safer alternative to painkillers. Imagine, no need for Yoko Yoko if you’ve got a bruised knee, just a litany of analgesic swear-words could do the trick. If your primary school teacher catches you F-bombing in class, you could explain that you accidentally stapled your thumb, and was merely ‘relieving the tension’ and increasing your ‘pain threshold’, as scientists have advised.
Here’s something for the NUS investigators to consider for their next study perhaps: Compare the universal ‘ow’ or ‘ouch’ to how some Singaporeans instinctively react when stubbing their toe against the bed (KNNBCCB!). I, for one, would gladly sign up in such a clinical trial. Ah, science.