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Profanity's Roots in Brain Chemistry? Damn Right

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Scientists have learned that profanity has a home in our brains separate to where polite language originates. David W Cerny/Reuters

When Benjamin Bergen was working on his new book about profanity, the reaction he would most often get was bafflement. Why would he want to write about vulgarity, profanity and cussin’? His answer, as a cognitive scientist, is that expletives are more than just vulgar expressions we let slip when we stub a toe or a ?#@%*! driver cuts into our lane. Swearing, they say, offers a glimpse into the workings of our brains.

To understand why profanity has become a subject for serious inquiry, look no further than the title of Bergen’s new book, published in September: What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. Studying how and why we swear has taught researchers much about where language originates in the brain, and the impact profanity has on our psyches.

It wasn’t long ago when the subject was as taboo as the words themselves. In the 1950s, academic inquiry into profanity was placed in the same category as sex research—controversial, immoral and strongly discouraged.

Yet, attitudes shifted with time, and swearing studies became less stigmatized. One of the most interesting and important findings to emerge over the years is that words come from more than one part of the brain. “We have two assembly lines that produce words,” says Bergen.

Researchers discovered that in part by observing patients with severe brain injuries and advanced neurodegenerative diseases. Often cited is a 19th century stroke case, in which a patient with brain damage lost the ability to form and understand speech, a condition known as aphasia, But he was able to swear, saying “I f*ck!” That was particularly unfortunate in his case. He was a priest.

Patients with Tourette syndrome have also provided evidence that language has multiple sources in the brain. Tourette syndrome is an inherited neurological disorder characterized by involuntary behavioral tics. For one in every 10 patients, these tics manifest as outbursts of swearing or offensive remarks such as “you’re ugly.” This phenomenon, known as coprolalia, is thought to be due to a malfunction in the basal ganglia, responsible for inhibiting unwanted or inappropriate behaviors.

Regular speech is generated in the left hemisphere, in an area of the brain close to the surface. The cerebral cortex, or “gray matter,” is often associated with higher thought processes such as thought and action. “It’s sophisticated,” says Bergen, “and comports with the idea of what it means to be human.”

Swearing, on the other hand, is generated much deeper in the brain, in regions that are older and more primitive in evolutionary terms, says Bergen. These regions are often found in the right hemisphere in the brain’s emotional center, the limbic system.

“These are words that express intense emotions—surprise, frustration, anger, happiness, fear,” says psychologist and linguist Timothy Jay, who began studying profanity more than 40 years ago.

“[Swearing] serves my need to vent, and it conveys my emotions to other people very effectively and symbolically,” he says. “Where other animals like to bite and scratch each other, I can say ‘f*ck you’ and you get my contempt—I don’t have to do it physically.” Of course there’s no protection against a primitive physical response, especially when that contempt is expressed in a bar.

Nearly every language in the world contains profanity. “There’s a point at which ordinary words don’t express our needs, but a profanity can do that,” says Michael Adams, a linguist at Indiana University and author of the new book In Praise of Profanity. Profanity makes up half a percent of the average person’s daily vocabulary, or one in every 200 words, according to Jay.

Profanity serves other purposes, too. Lovers use it as part of enticing sex talk; athletes and soldiers use it to forge camaraderie; and people in positions of power use it to reaffirm their superiority. Profanity is even used as a celebratory expression, says Adams, citing “F*ck yeah!” as an example.

The meaning of a profanity, like any other word, changes with time, culture and context. While swear words have been around since Greek and Roman times, and maybe even earlier, the types of things people consider offensive have changed. “People of the Middle Ages had no problems talking about sex or excrement, that was not their hang-up,” Adams explains. “Their hang-up was talking about God disrespectfully...so that was what a profanity was.”

Consider, also, that people today don’t recoil upon hearing “damn” as they did at the time of the movie Gone with the Wind, when Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler shocked audiences and Scarlett O’Hara with, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

We’ve since moved away from blasphemy being the most offensive and shocking type of profanity, says Bergen. “Now slurs are the worst ones.” Still, he says most swear words fall into four big categories: those relating to religion, sex, or excretion, and derogatory slurs. Most aren’t inherently disturbing except for slurs directed at people that insult their gender, ethnic or sexual identity.  And depending where you are in the word, there can be different takes on what’s considered profane. In Chile, it might be seafood: “Que te folle un pez” or “I hope you get f***ed by a fish.” In Italy, you might hear “porco miseria,” which has roughly the same meaning as “s***” or “bloody hell.” The Dutch might scorch you with “krijg de kanker,” or “get the cancer.”

While we know that swear words are produced in areas of the brain that control emotion, it seems like they might be processed in those regions when we hear them. “There is some evidence that the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in detecting threats, is activated when we hear taboo words,” says Stephen Pinker, a leading psychologist who studies language and cognition.

Researchers now want to explore the impact swearing has on listeners in greater detail. In particular, they’re interested in studying how slurs and terms of abuse can affect the people they’re directed at. For example, researchers would like to know whether middle schoolers experience higher levels of social anxiety when other kids batter them with profanity.

Swearing still makes many people uncomfortable—including Bergen’s mom, who has yet to finish reading his book. But don’t expect it to go away. It’s a deeply ingrained part of our culture, and almost all of us are guilty of unleashing an expletive now and then. “It’s a rare bird,” says Bergen, “who has never let slip a profane word.” Damn right.