Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The physiology of language has been a long obsession of mine, so it was fun to come across this article about how swear words affect our minds and bodies and culture.
Because cursing calls on the thinking and feeling pathways of the brain in roughly equal measure and with handily assessable fervor, scientists say that by studying the neural circuitry behind it they are gaining new insights into how the different domains of the brain communicate - and all for the sake of a well-venomed retort.

Other investigators have examined the physiology of cursing, how our senses and reflexes react to the sound or sight of an obscene word. They have determined that hearing a curse elicits a literal rise out of people. When electrodermal wires are placed on people's arms and fingertips to study their skin conductance patterns and the subjects then hear a few obscenities spoken clearly and firmly, participants show signs of instant arousal.

Their skin conductance patterns spike, the hairs on their arms rise, their pulse quickens, and their breathing becomes shallow.

Yesterday, my daughter asked me why I've been swearing so much lately. I didn't realize I had been swearing more--I usually don't swear much at all (it does have a real physical effect on me; my mouth usually feels a resistance to those words)--but I think my emotions have been more raw in the last few weeks, in the aftermath of Katrina, and maybe my guard is down. Hannah could only bring up two examples of times I swore in the last week--once, when someone cut me off on the freeway, and once when Microsoft Word crashed and I lost a bunch of work (nothing too important, thankfully)--but I guess two times is a lot more than zero. Sometimes it feels so good to swear, very cathartic. Maybe if I used curse words more often, they wouldn't have the same impact, the same hair-raising power. Now when I use them, it's like a fucking atomic bomb.

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