The millions of frequent readers of this blog are doubtless familiar with a theory I’ve been intermittently ruminating on: the idea that swearing offers some kind of cathartic release for a subconscious part of the brain/mind. In essence, when you swear in anger, you’re giving voice to some part of yourself that is not often allowed to speak. This part may be what Freud would refer to as the id.
Part of what got me thinking about this was people with Tourette’s syndrome — they seem to have this uncontrollable need to swear. I’m also reminded of several cases of people who were in horrible accidents and lost much of their frontal cortex. These people could not use language, but they could swear. The famous Phineas Gage who lost some of his prefrontal cortex in an accident and went from being a responsible prude to a degenerate brute famous for swearing (a real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation) might also offer anecdotal evidence. And frankly, just my own experience with the catharsis of swearing makes me think it’s offering some release of tensions held deep within the mind.
It turns out that there’s actually been a lot of academic investigation in this topic, much of it nicely summarized in this Time magazine article. First the article discusses a study investigating how cursing alleviates pain.
To figure out why, psychologists at Britain’s Keele University recruited 64 college students and asked them to stick their hands in a bucket of ice water and endure the pain for several minutes. One group was allowed to repeat a curse word of their choice continuously while their hands were in the water; another group was asked to repeat a non-expletive control word, such as that which might be used to describe a table. The result was that swearing not only allowed students to withstand the discomfort longer, but also reduced their perception of pain intensity. Curse words, the study found, help you cope.
The article then takes comments from famed psychologist/scientist Steven Pinker, who offers a theory remarkably similar to my own.
That’s probably because humans are hardwired to swear cathartically, says Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of The Stuff of Thought, an exploration of the psychology of language. Pinker distinguishes cathartic cursing from using profanity descriptively, idiomatically, abusively or for emphasis, and points to similar behavior in animals that suggests its evolutionary roots. If you step on a dog or cat’s tail, it will let out a sharp yelp of pain, for example. “Swearing probably comes from a very primitive reflex that evolved in animals,” Pinker says. “In humans, our vocal tract has been hijacked by our language skills,” so instead of barking out a random sound, “we articulate our yelp with a word colored with negative emotion.”
The part of the brain that accounts for the urge to swear — or yelp, in the case of animals — is deep within, suggesting its primitiveness. Studies of non-human primates show that vocalization is nearly always attributed to subcortical processes in the brain, in those regions that control primal, raw emotions, says Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, a professor of speech language pathology and audiology at New York University. In humans too, the urge to swear likely stems from primitive parts, but it is usually overridden by commands from the brain’s more complex cortex — the abundant gray matter on which humans rely for language and reason, among other sophisticated abilities. “We have intact frontal lobes, which inhibit these responses,” Sidtis explains. But in certain circumstances — either because we don’t bother to inhibit them or because the shock of pain or discomfort momentarily surpasses the safeguards — our impulse for obscenity takes over. “In that way, it’s like the dog when you step on his tail,” Sidtis says.
Or, in the case of Phineas Gage and others who suffered cortex destroying accidents, the inhibition of cursing is no longer possible, because the brain parts that do the inhibiting are now splattered outside the brain. And in the case of people with Tourette’s, perhaps the ability of the cortex to inhibit the behavior of their primitive brain is somehow itself inhibited.
Can swearing offer catharsis and help relieve pain? Fuck yeah! I said, fuck yeah you stupid shit eating cunt hole!
(Sorry, I’m just doing this for my health. I feel better already.)