Profanity is Mindless

That’s right. Curse words are not processed in the same area of the brain as other language. Speaking requires language processing of units of sound, whereas curse words are stored as whole data chunks. Cussing requires less mental processing, and is primarily a function of the amygdala, a part of the brain’s limbic system which processes negative emotions.

The limbic system is in the center depths of the brain and composed of several organs responsible for memory and processing of emotions and behaviors. This area is also responsible for vocalizations in primates and animals. Yep, even animals use profanity, or at least it sounds like it!

Piecing the smallest units of sound (phonemes) together is slower and occurs in the cerebral cortex. This area of higher functioning is home to our abilities to reason and write, in addition to speaking. The formation of non-curse words seems to take longer and involves less spontaneous emotion. The formation of words is not only based on literal meanings but also feelings and emotions the words evoke. Since adult speech perception is somewhat automatic, words with strong negative connotations are easily retrieved and spoken almost spontaneously

Here are a few questions I’ve been asked recently: Why does profanity seem to slip out when our emotions are negative and spontaneous? Why is it so hard to complete a sentence when I’m angry or frustrated?

Since the amygdala is correlated with negative emotional associations; stimulating the amygdala can cause panic attacks and aggressive behaviors, while destroying the amygdala causes unusual calmness or fearlessness. Therefore, it makes sense that the amygdala would be activated in association with unpleasant words such as swear words.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies indicate verbal working memory tasks’ performances increase during positive emotional states but decrease during negative emotional states. Aha! “That’s why we can’t remember ‘sh_t’ when we are upset and frustrated.”

~ Dr. Doscher

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Author: Michelle Doscher, PhD

I use verbal and nonverbal behavioral cues to investigate the psychology fueling sales, marketing, and interpersonal communication. My analyses answer the "why?" questions needed to close deals and augment inquiries.

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