October 06, 2015 22:30 UTC

Science in the News

Swearing as Pain Relief: When Bad Words Can Make You Feel Good

Also: Researchers say a flute that is at least 35,000 years old is the oldest musical instrument ever found. And the risks of the H1N1 flu virus to pregnant women. <em>Transcript of radio broadcast:</em>


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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus.


And I'm Steve Ember. This week, we will tell about new concerns about the H1N1 virus. We will also tell about a study of socially unacceptable words. And we will report on the recovery of what archeologists are calling the oldest musical instrument ever found.



Governments around the world have been taking steps to guard against the H1N1 influenza virus, commonly known as swine flu. Health officials say the virus is especially risky for pregnant women. If they become infected, especially after the first three months of pregnancy, they can get very sick or even die.

Pregnant women face an increased risk even during outbreaks, or periods, of seasonal influenza. But the H1N1 flu has been affecting a younger age group than seasonal flu epidemics.


The World Health Organization says pregnant women should take the antiviral drug Tamiflu as soon as possible after they show signs of being sick. The drug is also called oseltamivir.

The W.H.O. says treatment should begin immediately and not wait for the results of laboratory tests. The effects are greatest when given within forty-eight hours. But experts say the medicine could still do some good even if there is a delay.


Since April, more than one thousand deaths have been reported from the H1N1 virus. But the virus has yet to show itself to be more severe than seasonal flu.

The World Health Organization has predicted that the virus will infect at least two billion people in the next two years. The WHO's Director-General, Margaret Chan, has expressed concern there is not a good process in place to produce enough vaccine against the virus.


In the United States, there are now policies for the use of H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available. An advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there are five groups that should be vaccinated first.

These include pregnant women and people who live with or care for children younger than six months. They also include workers in health care and emergency services, and people between six months and twenty-four years of age.

The fifth group on the list is people twenty-five to sixty-four with chronic, or long-lasting, health problems.



Dirty language. Curse words. Profanity. Swearing. These are all ways of describing words people consider socially unacceptable. But such words are commonly said after a painful injury. So, do they serve a purpose in reducing physical pain? That is what researchers at Keele University in Britain set out to discover.

Psychologist Richard Stephens wondered if using curse words truly helped people experiencing physical pain. To test the theory, he asked more than sixty college students to take part in an experiment.


The students were asked to write down five words they might say after hitting their finger with a hammer. One of the words was chosen as their swear word. The students were also asked to choose five words they might use to describe another object: a table. These words were their control words.

The students were then asked to hold their hand in cold water for as long as they could. While holding their hand underwater, they were asked to repeat a swear word. Then they repeated the experiment using their control word instead.


The researchers found a link between swearing and an increased ability to deal with pain. When students repeated a swear word, they were able to hold their hand longer in the cold water. On average, students using swear words were able to keep their hand in the water for about two minutes. Those using control words removed their hands after about one minute fifteen seconds. In addition, those using swear words said they experienced less pain than those who used control words.

The experiment showed that swearing caused people's heart rate to increase. It also found interesting differences between men and women. The heart rate of both men and women increased. Yet swearing had a greater effect on the women.

Researchers believe the increase in heart rate might demonstrate what they call the fight or flight response. They say this permits the body to experience or ignore pain better.

The results of the study were published in the journal NeuroReport.


It is unclear to scientists exactly how swearing affects physical reactions to pain. Professor Stephens believes that swearing activates a different part of the brain than normal language. He says more experiments on different kinds of pain are needed to better understand the effect of swearing.

The researchers note that swear words have existed for hundreds of years. They say their findings offer one reason why the custom of cursing may have continued for so long. Swear words are said with emotion. For that reason, says Mister Stephens, the more someone swears, the less of an effect the words have.



Finally, archeologists in Germany say they have recovered the oldest and most complete handmade musical instrument ever found. Tests show the instrument, a flute, is at least thirty-five thousand years old. The archeologists say its discovery helps show that early modern human beings in Europe had a complex and creative culture.

Art seems to have been important to these early humans. In recent years, the archeologists found examples of finely-cut statues in the same area as the flute.

Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen led the team of researchers. The team published its findings in Nature magazine.


The researchers made their discoveries last year in two caves in southwestern Germany. The researchers say they found one nearly complete flute made out of bones from a bird -- the griffon vulture. They also found small pieces of three flutes made from ivory.

Scientists agree that musical instruments are a sign of fully modern behavior and a complex form of communication. But they continue to debate the early evidence of music because few archeological objects exist to prove how music developed and spread. The group of now extinct humans known as Neanderthals did not leave clear evidence of being musical. But modern humans, or Homo sapiens, did.


The bone flute is about twenty one centimeters long. The researchers estimate that, when it was complete, it measured about thirty-four centimeters. The flute has five finger holes.

Scientists can predict how this instrument might have sounded by studying a copy of a smaller bird bone flute found several years ago in the same area.


This smaller flute has three finger holes and produces four main musical notes. By blowing sharply into the smaller flute, a player can make three more overtones. The researchers estimate that the five-hole flute would produce an even wider mix of notes.


Professor Conard and his team also found broken pieces of three ivory flutes. They say the technology for making flutes out of ivory is much more complex than for making one out of bone. And, the professor suspects that early humans liked ivory flutes more because the instruments produced a deeper, richer sound. These flutes were cut from the naturally curved area of ivory from an animal -- the mammoth.

Archeologists are able to estimate the age of these objects by dividing layers of dirt into time periods. The area where the flutes were found has been linked to the Aurignacian culture within the period of history known as the Upper Paleolithic. The Aurignacian culture began about forty thousand years ago and ended about twenty-eight thousand years ago.


Radiocarbon test results from two laboratories show that the flutes are over thirty-five thousand years old. The people who used them were some of the first populations to arrive in and settle in Europe.

From this find and others made in the area, the researchers believe that music was important in the Aurignacian culture of southwestern Germany.



This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Dana Demange, Caty Weaver and Brianna Blake, who was also our producer. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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