I’ve received a flurry of emails about the “Swearing can alleviate pain” study conducted at England’s Keele University by psychologist Richard Stephens and colleagues. I’d like to make a few comments in regards to swearing and cognition.
There are many reasons why we swear; to express anger, surprise or pleasure; to shock, to emphasize, to show solidarity, or for humorous purposes. Similarly, there are many reasons why we don’t swear (socialization, belief system, inhibiting politeness factors, etc).
Possibly one of the most interesting types of swearing is the uncontrollable, compulsive kind…
The Stephens, et al. study tested “volunteers who cursed at will”, although most pain-response swearing is actually a reaction, rather than a deliberate attempt to ease pain. Personally, I’d like to beat the fuck out of some people and observe their auto-responses to pain, but try getting that one past your ethics committee…
Screaming shit! when you stub your toe or moaning fuck! when you’re in the throes of passion are related to a phenomenon called coprolalia; that is, the involuntary production of obscenities. This can be a characteristic of the condition known as Tourette’s Syndrome (although it’s really a rare symptom).
Patients with Tourette’s Syndrome can exhibit muscular tics and/or vocal tics. These sudden, spasm-like tics are often involuntary outbursts of ‘bad language’. These include not only expletives but also abusive epithets and racial insults; and not only utterances, as some patients have the compulsion to write naughty words, make rude gestures (there are cases of deaf people with Tourette’s who sign rude words uncontrollably), and even produce offensive noises, such as belching. (Some readers must now be thinking, “Oh, Fuck! Do I have Tourette’s?!)
Interestingly, Tourette’s behaviors vary across cultures, and time. Patients seem to blurt out words that are deemed socially inappropriate in their time and place. It’s upsetting to think of historical sufferers who would have likely uttered profane or blasphemous words and been ostracized (or worse) for ‘demonic possession’ or ‘witchcraft’.
Research suggests that our vocabulary of obscenities is stored/accessed differently in the brain. It’s believed that taboo language is, ahem, rooted in our neural anatomy; inbuilt into the limbic systems of our brains. The cerebral cortex is to be thanked for our skepticism, reasoning, and rational thinking (that’s not to say we are always successful at this!). Conversely, the basal ganglia (the interconnected areas below the cerebral cortex) regulates emotions and behavior, like emotive swearing.
Incidentally, research has shown that glossolalia (the speaking in tongues found in charismatic churches) shows an increase in use of the emotion centers of the brain during the event, and a decrease in the language parts of the brain.
Various studies (see below) implicate the basal ganglia in Tourette’s Syndrome (and similar neurological disorders such as asphasia). You see, the basal ganglia plays a large role in impulse control. Swearing can be a release of anger or stress, an act of aggression, a loss of control, or an uninhibited reaction to pain. The swearing exhibited by Tourette’s Syndrome sufferers seems to also be uninhibited; a breakdown of the brain’s inhibitory mechanisms. Coprolalia appears to be a failure to inhibit some kinds of ‘normal’ behavior. Coprolaliacs can’t seem to refrain from engaging in ‘bad behavior’ in supposedly polite company. In a sense, it’s like giggling at a funeral…
The production of swearing is a fascinating and controversial area of cognitive science; we just don’t fucking know everything about it yet!
Allan, K. and Burridge, K. 2006. Forbidden Words. Cambridge University Press.
Jay, T. 2000. Why We Curse: A Neuro-Psycho-Social Theory of Speech. John Benjamins.
Newberg, A. et al. 2006. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. Vol. 148, No. 1, 22, pp. 67-71.
Pinker, S. 2007. The Stuff of Thought. Viking Adult.