While there's nothing quite like reeling off a string of profanities to blow off some steam, our brains might not agree with that sentiment. Saying swear words out loud actually triggers reactions deep in the emotion centers of the brain.
That's the finding of Professor Jeffrey Bowers and Dr. Christopher Pleydell-Pearce, both of the University of Bristol's School of Experimental Psychology. They designed an experiment in which participants read from three lists: one with swear words on it, another with euphemisms for those swear words, and finally a list of neutral words with no profane connections. The test subjects consistently had a far greater autonomic response when reading the actual swears - in other words, swearing was more stressful than not swearing, neurologically speaking.
Professor Bowers explains:
We argue that taboo words generate emotional reactions in part through verbal conditioning, that is through a simple form of learning, the sounds of taboo words become directly associated with emotional centres in the brain. Accordingly, taboo words can evoke strong emotions even when they are uttered without any desire to offend. Euphemisms (such as ‘the F-word'), clever acronyms whose meanings are clear (for example, ‘FCUK'), and taboo words learned later in life (when learning a second language) have not been associated with emotions through conditioning to the same extent, and as a result, do not trigger strong emotional responses.
It's an interesting finding, though I do have one major quibble - there is nothing clever about the anagram "FCUK." I've seen enough stupid college t-shirts to feel damn certain about that.
In any event, the researchers argue that this deeper psychological conditioning behind swearing is evidence of linguistic relativity, which in a broad sense deals with how language shapes the way we think. The fact that swearing really does stress us on a fairly deep cognitive level could actually affect what people are and are not willing to think about - entire topics could be avoided because they require the use of too many taboo words. Obviously, that's a bit of a simplification - after all, plenty of people still swear just fine, whatever the autonomic effect - but it does offer an intriguing way of looking at the murky dividing line between speech and thought.
Via PLoS ONE. Image via GranniesKitchen on Flickr.