How does our brain react to cursing? A UniSR study unveils the process

11 June 2019

During our everyday communications, it is not so infrequent to curse or hear someone cursing. Curse words, also referred to as ‘taboo words’ are unique in their ability to quickly and directly convey emotional contents, such as our interlocutor's social status. Despite their uniqueness in terms of utility and function, little is known on how our brain processes curse words. This issue has been investigated, for the first time, in a recent study conducted by the researchers of the Centre for Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics of our University and published in the prestigious Brain & Language journal. In particular, researches have addressed two questions: a) does our brain processes curse words in the same way it understands other words? b) Does the way in which the brain understand curse words change depending on whether they are produced in our native language or in a foreign language?

The research group lead by Prof. Jubin Abutalebi, an associate professor of Neuropsychology at UniSR, carried out two experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); by assessing hemodynamic changes in the cerebral blood flow, fMRI allows to investigate which brain regions are involved in the process under investigation. In their experiments, the researchers presented “curse words” and “normal words” to healthy adult participants; in one experiment, participants were monolinguals, in the second experiment they were Italian-English bilinguals.

As Dr. Simone Sulpizio, first author of the work and researcher at UniSR, states:

“The results show that, although curse words are processed by means of the same brain regions used for other words, they are recognized and processed easier and more efficiently: this striking advantage for curse words is probably due to their social and emotional relevance, which makes them immediately recognizable by our brain”.

Instead, considering the results for bilinguals, the authors have observed that curse words are perceived as less offensive when presented in a foreign language as compared to their presentation in the native language. Moreover, when using a foreign language, understanding curse words was less immediate and entailed the involvement of extra brain regions that help us to better understand the social and emotional relevance of words. In other words, we have to think and reflect in order to understand whether a certain word is or is not socially OK.

Prof. Abutalebi concludes: “These results help to better understand how words can have a social impact on our interlocutors”.

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