Neuroscientist says swearing is healthy — even in the workplace
Neuroscientist Emma Byrne recently found herself in front of a BBC audience with her hand plunged into freezing water.
She was re-enacting an experiment that she and her work colleagues had conducted in the laboratory. Its purpose: to demonstrate that you’ll last longer suffering this ordeal if you allow yourself to swear.
In other words, bad language can reduce pain.
Mind you, Byrne did behave herself during the broadcast. She didn’t scorch the delicate ears of listeners with an outburst of profanity. Well, at least there was nothing improper that the microphones could pick up.
“This was the venerable BBC,” she says impishly. “So one of the deals I made with the producer was that I would keep my language clean.”
However, Byrne was under no such constraints during the writing of her new book, Swearing is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. Its lively preface employs the F-word so many times that readers will give up counting.
“No, it wasn’t calculated,” Byrne says merrily before she’s even asked the obvious question. “I didn’t take a tally. My editor and I probably went back and forth about taking some out, and I think she was more prone to keeping them in. She figured they were more about my sense of humour than about my swearing.”
Byrne is sipping a hot beverage on a bustling patio outside the British Library, a majestic landmark where she spent many an hour doing serious research on serious subject matter.
She isn’t kidding here. The resulting book, slated for release Nov. 25, may not seem serious, given its author’s readiness to be funny in support of her thesis. But turn to the end and you find a lengthy bibliography and page after page of learned references.
Still, there’s no sign of the stuffy academic this afternoon. Dark hair restless in an autumn breeze, eyes full of mischief, Byrne dissolves into giggles when reminded of New Yorker Mary Norris’s approving description of her as “a trash-talking” woman. “I really love that,” Byrne grins. Besides, she figures one needs a sense of humour to write a book like this one.
“Swearing plays into the emotions in a way that another language doesn’t because it involves various taboos,” she says. “There are no alternative synonyms in the lexicon because they don’t have the same emotional punch. But you have to navigate these emotions with a little bit of levity.”
It’s Byrne’s view that foul language was one of the first forms of human language and remains essential to interaction. She also believes the evidence is there to show that swearing can relieve pain, reduce stress in the workplace, help cure stroke victims, and improve the performance of athletes. And that’s only a few of its benefits.
In exploring the universe of swearing, she’s lined up some nifty stories.
Early on, she takes us back to the year 1848 and the case of Phineas Gage whose head was pierced by a metal rod while blasting rock in Vermont. Gage miraculously survived a hole that passed right through his skull — but the destruction of his left frontal lobe triggered a compulsion to swear. Research into this neurological mystery opened the door to speculation that the brain might have specialized areas — speculation that Byrne then links to pioneering Victorian studies into the ubiquitousness of bad language.
In more recent times, there’s the case of a chimpanzee named Wahoe who had been taught sign language in the lab and used it to express the word “dirty” when she wanted to swear at people. Byrne notes that this course of action is preferable to the chimpanzee’s wilderness habit of heaving handfuls of excrement when enraged.
“House-training them is very important because you can’t study them otherwise,” she says matterof-factly. “You’d be spending all your time hosing down the lab.”
The book also gets into gender issues, with Byrne contending that women swear as much as men.
“There’s still the prevalent belief that swearing is a more masculine thing, and I always believed that, despite being a woman who swears a lot,” she says. “The reason we had this belief that women swear less than men is that until recently the majority of psychology researchers have been male.”
And she’s firm in her belief that swearing is healthy — even in the workplace. “It’s really useful for lowering tension.” She cites her own experience of recently starting a new job and working in a room full of males who kept apologizing to her for their bad language.
“They kept saying sorry. And I said: ‘Dudes, I literally wrote the book on swearing and it’s all right. You don’t have to not swear around me!’”
Byrne is also satisfied that swearing provides a release valve for people suffering from long-term pain or a terminal condition. “It can be therapeutic, especially for those with impairments — swearing may be the only language they have left and it can be used to express yourself so fully and roundly in expressing excitement or joy, anger or frustration. Telling them they can’t swear is telling them they can’t express such feelings, which is cruel in the extreme.”
At this point, Byrne is reminded of the birth of her daughter 18 months ago. “I was very surprised that I didn’t swear at all — and I was expecting to,” she confesses.
But what if a decade from now Byrne’s daughter comes out with a word that shocks her mom?
“I’m not completely unshockable,” she says cheerfully. “I think she’ll be disappointed if she doesn’t manage to shock me. I think it’s a way of demonstrating your difference from the generation before you.”
Byrne sees swearing as an evolving thing. Words that caused offence a century ago no longer do so today.
“Anything that becomes commonplace loses its impact. But such is the nature of swearing that it will reinvent itself. For example swearing associated with sexual or religious taboos has become more commonplace, so as the taboos related to them lose their power, the related swearing loses its impact.
“But because we need swearing as a species, we’ll always find another taboo.”