Scientific research that seems to support the idea that swearing is inherently good certainly seems to appeal to the masses. It’s unclear why, but perhaps there’s something fun about authoritative science types suggesting that we can break social rules like that in a public setting.
Research has linked swearing to – among other things – honesty, better vocabularies, better credibility, improved camaraderie with our peers, and helping us process and handle anger. In fact, someone who’s spoken plenty about such research is artificial intelligence (AI) researcher and author Dr Emma Byrne – and she’s about to tell the world that teaching students to swear can also help them to understand language better.
According to The Sunday Times, the self-titled Sweary Scientist will tell an audience at the UK’s Cheltenham Science Festival that “we try to keep strong language away from kids until they know how to use it effectively,” adding “I strongly argue that we should revise this attitude.
“Learning how to use swearing effectively, with the support of empathetic adults, is far better than trying to ban children from using such language,” she will also say.
Byrne will underline her argument by explaining that, by banning it, you won’t be able to demystify the words in the first place, nor will children be able to understand the emotions of the people around them deploying such linguistics. “Children need to learn how swearing affects others.”
This doesn’t appear to be based off a single study, but rather a plethora of work. Byrne clearly knows her shit, as one may say: Although she spends much of her time talking about AI and robotics, she has a deep fascination with neuroscience, which according to her website led her to publish her first pop-sci book: Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language.
Although debates can and are being had on what you can legitimately connect swearing to and what appears more flimsy, there’s no doubting that it’s an under-researched topic, perhaps because of how taboo swearing still is.
In a piece for WIRED earlier this year, Byrne references one particularly enlightening study on the subject: It found that swearing when in pain, for example, increases someone’s tolerance to the pain compared to someone shouting a neutral (and jarringly inappropriate) word instead, like “shiny!”
Apart from elucidating that swearing may have this effect – even suggesting stronger words are better painkillers – it also reminds us that pain isn’t just a biological phenomenon, but a psychological one too.
The point, really, is that there’s a lot of potential here. Sometimes, the links may be bogus, but they also may not be. Either way, it’ll be interesting, as ever, to hear what Byrne has to say on the subject in a week's time.