Experiment Week: Punching a Wall in the Name of Science

Punching a Wall.

© NowTumblingNat

Feeling adventurous? Curious? Or perhaps just angry? If you are so inclined to punch a wall for science, and have a spare minute, take our survey here.

If not, no worries. Instead, read on about other people who took the hit and what insights their cathartic experiences provided.


Fuck. Shit. Ow. Argh.

For some, cursing when you stub a toe, scrape your knee, or cut your finger is instinctual. Once pain starts flooding the senses, some loud, garbled mess of recognition and frustration emits from your mouth. But can verbalizing this pain actually help you get over the pain faster?

We — Risky Business’ Zahra Hirji and Variable’s Hannah Cheng — decided to find out.

And, fortunately, between the two of us, we had some friends who were willing to put themselves though an average of 1 minute of pain for science.

The Experiment

All participants were given the general same instructions:

  1. With one hand, participant’s preference, punch a hard surface enough so that it hurts, but not enough to break bones or tear skin — we can’t afford to pay for hospital bills.
  2. Do not make a sound once the pain hits.
  3. Count the seconds it takes for the pain/tingling sensation to go away.
  4. Repeat with the other hand, but this time you should respond with a strong exclamation of your choice.

Participants reported handedness, exclamation sound, and type of targeted surface.

The Data

Below is a table of the data collected from yesterday, Wednesday, September 11.

Participant

Sex

Silent Punch
(sec/hand)

Vocal Punch
(sec/hand)

Dominant Hand

Response

Punching Surface

1

F

20

L

15

R

R

Ahhhh

Wall

2

F

22

L

15

R

R

Ow

Wall

3

F

11

L

13

R

R

Ouchie

Desk

4

F

35

R

40

L

R

Ow, Shit

Wall

5

F

22

R

20

S

R

Fuck

Wall

6

M

22

L

14

R

R

Agh

Wall

7

F

18

L

20

R

R

Fuck

Wall

 8 M 32  R 41 R R ki-YAH Wall
 9 F 10  R  8 L L  Ow ow ow Book
10 M 13  L  9 R R Grunt Tree
11 M 10 R 10 L R Ow Chair

Some participants offered a few additional pieces of information:

  • Participant 4 questioned if she counted faster on her vocal punch.
  • Participant 6 pondered if he actually hit equally hard both times, and mentioned that his left knuckles are harder.
  • Participant 7 likewise commented that she may have hit harder on the vocal punch.
  • Participant 9 expressed that concern for material possessions (i.e. the wall) and general personal fear held her back a little.
  • Participant 10 commented that walls are weak and not good enough for this kind of experiment.

The Results

The results displayed in the above table show no clear trend. Here’s another way to look at it.

Eleven participants (x-axis) reported the amount of time it took for pain to go away in seconds (y-axis).

Eleven participants (x-axis) reported the amount of time it took for pain to go away in seconds (y-axis).

Six people experienced shorter periods of pain when they yelled than when they were silent (4.5 seconds on average).

On the other hand (ha!), four people experienced faster relief (5 seconds on average) when they were responded silently to punching a hard surface.

Two of the three people who cursed experienced longer pain during the vocal punch. Four of the six people who punched walls counted pain for longer periods when they were silent. Half of the female participants saw longer periods of pain when they were loud, and the other half when they were silent.

Now, to be completely serious – we didn’t find anything statistically significant because a) our methods are shaky, b) our controls are weak, and c) our sample size is hilarious. But – and this speaks to peer pressure or curiosity more than anything – we were reasonably successful at getting friends to hurt themselves in the name of science.

Are we just horrible people?

Conclusions

Even if our experiment was a flop, it doesn’t mean it was all for naught. A study published in Neuroreport in 2009 looked at this similar issue and found evidence that yelling does in fact lessen the amount of time people writhed in pain.

A team of British scientists, led by Richard Stephens at Keele University, ran an experiment where 67 students stuck their arm in a tank of cold water for as long as they could. Those who swore – not just those who exclaimed a less filthy word – during the experiment reported less pain. People who cursed managed to keep their arm submerged on average 40 seconds longer than when they kept things family-friendly.

Why does vocalizing provide catharsis? Scientists think that the relief cursing provides is something of a mental thang. One theory is that when someone curses, the aggressive, taboo act sets her body into fight-or-flight. Usually when you’re in pain, you’re experiencing something negative. Negative feedback triggers a part of the brain called the amygdala. Her heart rate skyrockets, adrenaline feeds into the bloodstream, and her pain perception decreases. This allows her – and hopefully all of our willing participants – to mentally register and feel less pain.

So friends, here’s the final lesson: yes, punch a wall in the name of science, if indeed the science is sound. And for your own sake — curse away.


Zahra Hirji is a reporter for InsideClimate News. You can follow her @zhirji28. (And for the record, she always yells embarrassingly loud when she stubs her toe.)

Hannah Cheng is a freelance writer who periodically tweets @haychling. She alternates between squeaking and bellowing when a common klutz attack strikes.

After some deliberation, we decided there were things we could do to make the experiment a bit more rigorous. For instance, we should witness every experiment, time the responses using a stopwatch, told people use their dominant hand specifically on the yelling or silent punch. We could control for force by replacing punching with dropping a book of a certain weight from a certain height on the foot. But as for more willing participants…we use the “no funding” plea.

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