Tourette's Syndrome and Profanity
December 24, 2011 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Does the fact that with a person with Tourette's Syndrome will both physically jerk and in some cases yell profanity mean that profanity is hard wired into the brain? (Written in response to seeing this).
posted by scunning to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The question should have had an extended part - sorry. It occurred to me yesterday watching the MeFi link above that the person in the video would physically tic and state profanity. If he is driven to either because of external stimulus as he notes in another video then what does it mean that his brain selects profanity and not, say, the names of colors or some other randomness? It seems like it's non-random, in other words, that he is choosing profanity. Which made me wonder - if the brain in response to external stimuli selects profane words, then presumably there's some selection mechanism in the brain tied to where profane words are stored. OTherwise, why profane words and not just any sound? But is there evidence for that - that humans are hard wired for profanity? And why if so?
posted by scunning at 9:37 AM on December 24, 2011

I found this ask really helped me get a handle on what Tourettes is like from the "inside".
posted by Leon at 9:48 AM on December 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

A 2009 study revealed that swearing may increase subjects' pain tolerance. Subjects were asked to submerge their hands in a bath of ice water and keep them there as long as they could. When subjects were allowed to curse, they were able to keep their hands in the icy water longer.
posted by gerryblog at 9:58 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Someone will probably soon be along with a better answer, but the short answer is that yes, there seems to be something special about profanity and possibly some other classes of words. One place where this is seen is in different types of aphasia. Google and Google Scholar searches to get you started.
posted by trig at 11:04 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The theory is, as I understand it, you keep the monosylabic curse words somewhere different in your brain than you do the rest of your vocabulary. The other evidence for this is that when you hit your finger with a hammer (rather than the nail), you can get a curse word out faster than might be expected if your brain was doing a bunch of linguistic processing.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:12 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes. Steven Pinker's book "The Stuff of Thought" deals with this in one chapter.
posted by jacalata at 11:44 AM on December 24, 2011

Good answers here, but note that most Tourette's sufferers who yell words *don't* actually yell profanity. There was a good story in Esquire's "What It's Really Like" and the gentleman with Tourette's said that he yelled "Monkey."

As is so often the case, the thing that gets the laughs in the movie or sitcom is not a 100% real reflection of the condition. See also, narcolepsy.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:51 AM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have Tourette Syndrome. I'm the author of the question Leon linked, which is probably the most concise thing I've ever written on what having Tourette Syndrome is like.

I have a rotating lexicon of words and phrases I draw from when I have tics. There are some classics that stick around for a long time, and some that pop up for a few months that make way for something else.

A lot of the words in my lexicon are not profanity. For example, I remember for a while I was focused on groups of words that rhymes-hey, gay, pay, day was one that got a lot of use for a while. Sometimes I read a word in a book or an article and it'll just get stuck in my head, like, echolalia of the brain; I'll just keep hearing it pop up in my brain over and over until I have to say it.

Sometimes it's just guttural yelps and shouts of surprise and what STARTED out as words in my head but comes out garbled into slurred nonsense. 

I do experience corprolalia ("inappropriate" vocalizations) and I've wondered myself, why? Why did I say "cunt" fifty times a day in high school? Why do I draw out "fucking shit" to be ten syllables long and ten decibels too loud?

The best theory I've come up with is that a trigger for a lot-not all, but a lot-of my tics is my anxiety, external stresses, things I'm worried about, etc.

If I spent all day hanging out with Fred Rogers at Disneyland, I'd still have Tourette Syndrome. But it wouldn't be as severe as a day where I'm really tired and worn out and a little hungover and my boss yelled at me about something stupid and I had a fight with my boyfriend and then I hung out with some acquaintances in a setting where I felt really awkward and unwanted. For example.

Because negative feelings are a trigger for tics, sometimes the vocal tics that come out are negative. It's not all cursing. I've had a running theme in violence running in my tics for a very, very long time. At least 16 years, which is before I was even diagnosed. If I'm depressed and I hate myself one day I'll often mumble "I wish I was dead," "I wish someone would kill me," "I want to be chopped up into pieces and buried"......I mean, those are just as bad/worse than dropping a few f-bombs, in my opinion, and they come from the same place.

There's a really high comorbidity of TS and OCD, ADHD, anxiety disorders, etc. Plus, you know, we're actual real humans with actual lives, so even if there's not a dual diagnosis, everyone has problems and worries.

One of the stories I tell about my Tourette Syndrome is riding my bike through downtown Chicago on a lunch break-I suddenly remembered something stupid I had said or done, one of those memories that makes your whole body cringe and makes you want to crawl into bed for a week with a bottle of whiskey and some sleeping pills-I screamed "FUCKING IDIOT" at the top of my lungs while bombing down Wacker, riding right past a Tourista/Trixie with her Michigan Avenue shopping bags and small daughter in tow.

To them, I was just this crazy person shouting curse words at them. But they had no way of knowing the person I was calling a fucking idiot was myself.

All that being said, there's a lot of times I'm in a great mood and my corprolalia comes out anyway. There's a ton of people who have Tourette Syndrome and don't experience coprolalia-while having vocal, and not just motor, tics is part of the diagnosis criteria for TS, most people with Tourette Syndrome don't have coprolalia.

But for those I do, I don't think it's so much that curse words are hardwired into our brain, or inextricably linked to Tourette Syndrome-I think it's that tics are linked to stress, and stress is linked to swearing.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:51 AM on December 24, 2011 [29 favorites]

I've never been diagnosed with Tourette's (and find our current understanding and conceptualization of mental illness woefully unhelpful and inadequate), but I do have tics that wane and wax with time and circumstance. The best analogy I can make is to an itch, like some itch on the inside of your nose. An itch that, in the privacy of your own home, sitting at the computer reading MeFi, you'd just subconsciously scratch with barely a thought. But then one day you're on your first date with an awesome girl and you just don't want to scratch it and look like you're picking your nose but it so impinges and forces itself into your consciousness that finally you can't do anything but just think about fighting it or finally give in

An itch is something that anyone can understand, but a need to jerk your shoulder in a certain retarded-looking way, not so much. A need to stretch your face out so it looks like you're that girl in The Ring, not so much. A need to yell an obscenity (this is not something I've experienced), not so much. It damages our sense of self to feel these "outside", uncontrollable urges

I don't know what it is or where it comes from, but I don't think profanity specifically, which is a wholly cultural phenomena, could have much of anything to do with it
posted by crayz at 9:46 PM on December 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The theory is, as I understand it, you keep the monosylabic curse words somewhere different in your brain than you do the rest of your vocabulary.

Kid Charlemagne, copralalia doesn't restrict itself to monosyllabic words.

Juliet Banana, thanks for all your insights; my sympathies with your struggles.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:08 AM on December 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are two aspects here: Tourette's and coprolalia, which people have mentioned are not always linked, and the 'special' status of swearing in linguistic processing. With reference to the book I mentioned above (Stuff of Thought): Both Tourette's and the use of profanity have been linked to the basal ganglia, a specific part of the brain. Aphasic patients have often been recorded who are unable to use any words other than swearwords (or one opposite case where a man with a brain injury to the basal ganglia, not known for linguistic processing, who retained normal speaking ability and vocabulary, but could no longer remember songs, poems, or any swearwords). So yes, there is evidence that profanity is processed differently to other words, and this occurs across cultures and languages that have been studied - although the words themselves can change.
posted by jacalata at 4:54 PM on December 25, 2011

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