Why We Love to Swear So G*dd#mned Much

Our love affair with profanity may be cultural or it may be neurological.

Whether you use “bad” language or not, it’s clear that this is a family of words with unique power. It’s not completely clear why. We’re not talking about slurs, foul language intended to denigrate someone or a group of people. We know where that power comes from — hate — and why it’s potent: It hurts people. The profanity we’re talking about is defined by Google thusly:


We know that there’s no such thing as a truly bad word — there’s no real-world phrase to make someone drop dead like Harry Potter’s avada kedavra (and if so, whoops). So what’s so bad about profanity? Nothing really. It’s just that these are words that make some people uncomfortable, and so they should only be used with care, and an awareness of one’s audience. But, boy, do they pack a punch.

It could be argued that only its overuse has the ability to strip away profanity’s shock value. A comedian who’s every other word is a swear risks diluting its impact. And many feel that curses are simply a path of least resistance for vocabulary-challenged people trying to make a point.

Author Michael Adams, in his book In Praise of Profanity, asserts that naughty language is a good thing, not least because it brings people together. He says, “Bad words are unexpectedly useful in fostering human relations because they carry risk….We like to get away with things and sometimes we do so with like-minded people.”

Adams believes that a dirty word’s forbidden nature is why it’s so electric: it’s the thrill of the taboo. To him, this accounts for profanity’s importance in writing, whether that’s literature like Catcher in the Rye, TV or film like The Sopranos or Pulp Fiction, music (choose your favorite potty-mouth artist), or even a successful children’s book, like Go the Fuck to Sleep. It’s this off-limits nature that imbues it with an element of surprise to make a joke funnier, or an angry statement more powerful.

Linguist Benjamin Bergen of the Cognitive Science Department at UC San Diego has a new book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, that makes the case there’s something neurological behind the power and pleasures of profanity. He presents evidence that swear words come from, and please, a very particular region of the brain separate from the areas that govern normal speech.

Broca and Wernicke's area control normal speech (WIKIPEDIA)

Damage to those two regions in the brain’s left hemisphere — Broca’s area, which produces words, and Wernicke’s area, which is your built-in user dictionary — have been seen to result in aphasics who can’t talk normally anymore, but they sure can spontaneously swear, like you might after smashing your finger with a hammer. (Bergen is particularly fond of a priest who suffered a stroke in 1843 that left him with a vocabulary only a sailor could love.) So where are all these choice expressions coming from?

The basal ganglia? Yipes. (WIKIPEDIA)

It appears now that it comes from the right hemisphere of the brain, in the basal ganglia. This insight comes from the case of a different priest who lost his ability to swear — what’s with priests and swearing? — when his basal ganglia was damaged. What’s especially interesting about this finding is that this is an ancient, primitive area of the brain that has to do with emotional responses, as well as motor control. Sufferers of Tourette’s syndrome, that involves involuntarily shouted profanities, also have damaged basal ganglia.

This hard-wiring of profanity to the brain’s emotion center is fascinating. Maybe the taboo thrill of profanity is just icing on the cake. Maybe profanity is just the language of our emotions.

Most people who enjoy words and value an expansive vocabulary have an appreciation for well-used profanity, and Bergen’s “book-length love letter to profanity” isn’t all science. In it, you can learn, among other things, that the first words out of all Samoan babies’ mouths are apparently “eat &%$!,” and that the Japanese don’t have any swear words at all, forcing their Tourette’s sufferers to shout childhood words for genitalia.

So whether it’s culture or biology, profanity is here to stay. To which one can only respond, of course, “F#^k yeah.”

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.