The Science of Swearing
by Carolyn Abel
With a constant influx of upsetting , and yes, downright terrifying news about “alternative facts,” executive orders, and Donald Trump’s cabinet, you may have found yourself using more choice expletives than usual.
I mean, I’m still wondering: “What the hell are alternative facts?!”
But don’t worry; this story isn’t about politics.
On a lighter note, remember back in middle school sex-ed when you had to come up with as many terms as you could for parts of sexual anatomy? How many words for sex can you think of now? (How about different forms of the f word?)
So where did they come from and how did we evolve to use swearwords the way we do today?
A brief history of such words tells us that, contrary to popular belief, many four-letter words were not particularly vile, even ordinary. I bet you didn’t know that ‘fuck’ appeared in a legal document in 1310, or that ‘cunt’ showed up in a 14th century surgery textbook. Actually, it wasn’t until after the Renaissance that taboo words went from having religious connotations to sexual ones (It’s pretty clear that ‘fuck’ had sexual connotations though, even in 1310).
As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of neurological research dealing with how we use profanity. Various studies in which researchers explored patients with brain damage demonstrate that these subjects had a rather unique handle on language. The researchers noted that they used swear words heavily, even when they were otherwise non-verbal. This suggests that the brain encodes profanity differently from other language. Additionally, neutral words are processed in the cerebral cortex, which matures later in development and is associated with higher functions, whereas profanity is associated with emotions and the limbic system.
Tourette’s syndrome and aphasia (the inability to understand and produce language) can also give us insight into brain structures involved in swearing. As the basal ganglia is normally involved in the inhibition of inappropriate behaviors, deficits in this structure are likely implicated in Tourette’s. On the other hand, aphasias tend to affect the left hemisphere of the brain (the area responsible for language production in most people) and thus result in the inability to initiate regular speech.
Another unique characteristic of profanities are their linguistics. There’s a reason that most of them are four-letter, one-syllable words, ending in a consonant. This sharper quality contributes to the benefits of these words, especially in the context of pain response. Many similar studies have been done exploring pain tolerance, such as having participants hold their hand in a bucket of icy water for as long as they could. Groups that were allowed to swear during the experiment were able to withstand the cold longer than groups that could only say a neutral word. This is pretty compelling evidence that swearing helps increase pain tolerance.
Although profanity seems to originate from a more primitive region of the brain, it has also been proposed that the use of profanity depends on trust. Essentially, our frequency of use of profane language depends on how much we trust the person to whom we’re talking. If you trust someone more, you probably feel more confident they won’t dislike you for swearing. You may now be thinking, “Hey, doesn’t developing relationships and trust require higher order executive functions? Why aren’t they processed in those regions?”
One possible explanation for this is that profanity, along with words of affirmation or negation, and words having deep personal significance are all related to emotional expression. When we have a strong enough emotional reaction to something, whether it’s positive or negative, there is some thought that we reach the end of regular language.
Alternatively, maybe profanity use indicates we are not yet advanced enough to take full advantage of the frontal lobe.
So does more swearing indicate that we’re more primitive or more advanced? The jury’s still out on that. After all, sometimes you just need to let your feelings out.
*According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 1740. Here is the NY Books article that mentions it, or if you need a greater variety of words to express your feelings about the Trump administration, you can check out the other books mentioned in the article!
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.