Could swearing be good for you?

31 October 2017

Interview with

Dr Emma Byrne

As we’re looking at the science of scares for halloween, it’s perhaps appropriate that we’ve also been looking at the science of swears. The idea of letting a naughty word out on air certainly keeps radio presenters up at night, but what actually is swearing, and why do we do it? Georgia Mills spoke to Dr Emma Byrne, the author of the book, Swearing Is Good for You...

Emma - There’s all of this research done on swearing but there’s no standard definition, and there’s not standardised test for swearing either. But you tend to have these repeated common features of swearing, so it’s language that’s often used idiomatically or figuratively. We use it when we are highly emotional, though not necessarily a negative emotion. There’s a lot of swearing that’s used in excitement, or sympathy, or just outright joy and surprise, and also yes, it’s to do with taboos..

Things that are taboos are the things that we don’t feel comfortable or confident speaking about in so-called polite company, and each society has it’s own taboos. So, for example, Japan doesn’t have anywhere near the same sort of toilet taboo that Britain, or particularly North America has, which explains why the poop emojis are so popular.  Because poo is just a fun and silly thing in Japan whereas in North America it’s considerably more taboo.

Georgia - It’s this thing that we’re using when we’re highly emotional you said, or to convey emotion. Is there a benefit then to swearing?

Emma - There are actually several. Societally, the biggest benefit is probably that by swearing at each other we’re not actually bashing each other’s brains in. Because if you imagine two tribes of proto humans: one who when one of the hunter gatherers does something completely ridiculous, the rest of the tribe turn on them and bash their brains in, that tribes going to be less successful than a tribe that is able to just literally turn round and swear at this. From the very earliest stages of swearing I think it’s been useful but we also know that it’s good for team bonding, for reducing pain, so many reasons why swearing is useful.

Georgia - I was intrigued by the idea that swearing reduces pain. Time for an experiment with some unwitting volunteers…

Hello, can I borrow you for an experiment?

Volunteer -Yes. Well this looks cold.

Georgia - So we have before us two bowls full of ice water and I’m going to ask you both to put your hands in for as long as possible. You’re allowed to say any word to do with furniture so like chair, table. So when you’re ready to put your hand in start the timer. 3, 2, 1, go!

Katie - Chair!

Izzie - Table!

Georgia - Apart from making my colleagues look a bit foolish, this served to get an idea for how long they can withstand pain while shouting out some non-swear words. Neither lasted that long. So it’s time for round two… Now this time you can swear.

Katie - How much.

Georgia - As much as you like, I’m going to bleep it all out. 3, 2, 1, go!

Katie - Bleep, bleep.

Izzie - Bleep, bleep, bleep.

Georgia - You get the idea. After the two trials Katie managed to keep her hand in for an extra two seconds while allowed expletives and Izzie for an extra 28 seconds. How are you feeling?

Izzie - Really bleep cold.

Katie - Yes, chilly.

Georgia - I know, I know, it’s not exactly lab conditions or a properly controlled experiment but luckily it’s been done by someone who thought about it a little bit more. Richard Stevens published a more robust study in the Journal NeuroReport back in 2009 with some very interesting findings…

Emma - Consistently people can keep their hands in the ice water for about half as long again if they’re swearing and, what’s more, they report that the pain feels less. So it’s not just that they’re feeling the same amount of pain but be more determined to get through it subjectively, it isn’t actually as painful to keep you hand in that ice water while you’re swearing.

Georgia - Do we have any ideas of what’s happening in the brain that could cause this effect?

Emma - We certainly know that swearing is deeply linked to emotions. We also know there is this physiological change in the body when we’re swearing; that the heart rate goes up; that you start to feel a bit more sweaty palmed; that there’s adrenaline being released.

Georgia - Oh right. So it’s something to do then with this kind of adrenaline response to things?

Emma - It may well be the case, but we know that it can’t be as straightforward as the fight or flight mechanism giving you an extra boost. The reason we know that is that if you subject people to a minor amount of pain, the kind that would stimulate a fight or flight response, they actually report subsequent pain as more severe than people who’ve suffered enough pain to essentially cause a freezing or a numbing response. So we know it’s not just as simple as getting people’s adrenaline up, there’s something else that’s going on in that emotional state. There’s some really interesting research to be done to find out exactly what that is.

Georgia - So next time you tread on an upturned lug the swearing might actually be helping you. Perhaps this is why swearing exists everywhere in the world, and perhaps it’s not just limited to humans…

Emma - Some of the most fascinating research I came across while I was writing the book was about chimpanzees.

Georgia - That’s right. It’s not just faeces that chimps are flinging. If you teach them sign language they sometimes fling insults too...

Emma - They definitely invent swearing as they pick up taboos, and dirty was the sign that was used for anything to do with the potty. So dirty is a sign that’s used  to do with going to the toilet, going to the potty, anything that had been made a bit filthy.The chimpanzees spontaneously came up with this phrase “dirty good” which meant the potty, which shows that they understand there are some places where excrement is okay, so “dirty good” is the potty.

But “dirty dirty” was used in frustration or as an insult or as a term of disapprobation. Quite often she’d use it against the guy who was studying her, Roger, who would say “come on Washo, let’s do another one of pattern matching exercises,” and she’d go “no dirty Roger”. Or she moved into different accommodation there was, I think, a macaque next door who sort of shrieked at this alarm call when she was put into these new quarters and she signed at it “dirty monkey.” So whenever somebody annoyed or frightened or upset her, she would use “dirty” in the same way that we might call someone a “poop head.”

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