Why do we scream out in pain?

We have all injured ourselves at one point or another and whether this were a burn or a laceration, you probably cried out in pain. But why do we do it? Nobody knows if the stimulus of pain is directly hardwired to the part of your brain that makes you shout out. Scientists have been baffled for years! Most people however, agree that crying out in pain is an evolutionary thing. It makes sense: the stimulus link served as a way of letting others know that something was painful. It also appears to serve as an intimidating response to an attacker – “I suspect that swearing taps into a defensive reflex in which an animal that is suddenly injured or confined erupts in a furious struggle, accompanied by an angry vocalization, to startle and intimidate an attacker,” said psychologist Steven Pinker.

Not only does screaming appear to have become a response to pain, but in more recent years, so has swearing.

A study, recently published in the ‘NeuroReport’, aimed to measure the duration that two groups of students would leave their hands submerged in a bucket of icy cold water. During the experiment, the first group were allowed to repeat a swear word over and over again. Meanwhile, the second group went through the same ordeal but could only repeat a neutral word. The results found that the first group ‘the swearers’ reported much less pain and on average, kept their hands in the icy water for 40 seconds longer than the neutral group.

Many psychologists actually actively recommend swearing as a result of pain now, as it has been scientifically accepted that it numbs the painful sensations!

After reading this report I tried to think of other possible reasons why this may happen. To understand the response you must one again go back to evolutionary terms. It makes logical sense that by natural selection, people who stop doing painful things are more likely to survive and have their genes passed on: If something hurts, you stop doing it. However if you are in a situation of long-lasting pain and have no control over this, shouting out in pain seems perfectly natural. This can be described as your body’s way of making a bigger noise in your head than the pain is doing and thus taking away some of the emphasis from it.

No matter why screaming/swearing works, it seems fairly conclusive that it does help. So, next time you stub your toe and yell to the high heavens, take a quick second to think about why this response has been triggered.


Written by James Cunningham


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