Watch your language!

This post is also available in Dutch.

We probably all know this situation: you’re doing some work around the house, and instead of hitting the nail with the hammer, you hit your thumb. In these situations, my first reaction is to swear – a lot. Is swearing just a bad habit or is there something special about these words?

taken by Brandon Doran (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)Picture taken by Brandon Doran (License: CC By-ND 2.0)

Swearing seems to be a common part of daily conversation. Whether you are screaming “f—yeah!” to cheer on your favourite football team or hurling profanity at someone who should have yielded the right-of-way,  most of us swear in multiple situations.

Why do we swear?
Interestingly, neuroscientists found out that swearing can actually reduce the amount of pain you feel in the situation. To prove this, researchers measured how long college students could keep their hand in ice water. Students who cursed reported less pain than those who did not. Moreover, students who cursed kept their hand in ice water for 40 seconds longer!

How can this be explained? Cursing is a verbal form of fighting. It is meant to intimidate an attacker, and it soothes fear and pain as it triggers the release of adrenaline in your body. In this way, cursing can free you of built-up emotion, something we can also achieve when honking our car at others.

Listening to swear words
A number of researchers are exploring the neurological nature of swearing. They discovered that an area called the amygdala becomes active when someone is exposed to swear words. The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons deep in the brain, involved in processing emotion and memory.

Interestingly, after having been exposed to swear words for a while (for example by growing up with an older brother) these words won’t shock you as much anymore. This might be explained by the involvement of the amygdala in memory function.

Are swear words special?
As it turns out, your brain also seem to produce swear words in an atypical way. Evidence comes from a famous neurological patient in the 1800s who couldn’t speak – or at least he couldn’t speak in a way that made any sense. He could only say one syllable: “tan”, which gave him the nickname Tan.

Tan suffered from a language impairment called aphasia, which often results from damage to language-related areas of the brain (caused, for example, by a stroke). Patients with aphasia lose the ability to speak properly, but as in Tan’s case some of these patients are still able to swear. As Tan suffered damage on the left frontal part of the brain, his doctor Paul Broca concluded that this area must be vital for speech production, but that it is not involved in the generation of swearing. Since the 1800s, researchers have learned that language processing recruits multiple regions of the brain. Which regions are active at a given time depends on the particular type of language process at hand.

As you can see, swearing involves different systems in the brain.  Its generation involves some (but not all) language-related areas. Swear words also trigger the brain regions involved in processing emotions and can decrease negative feelings. So use them, if you must – but always use them wisely.

This blog has been written by Francie Manhardt. She is a PhD student working within the Multimodal Language and Cognition Group at Radboud University Nijmegen. Her research focuses on spatial relation in sign languages.
Edited by Jeroen.

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