FUCT in the brain

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In Iancu v. Brunetti, the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided, on free speech grounds, that Erik Brunetti should have the right to trademark his clothing line FUCT.

Robert Barnes' Washington Post story ("Supreme Court sides with ‘subversive’ clothing designer in First Amendment case", 6/24/2019) notes that "justices on both sides of the court’s ideological divide worried that the ruling went too far". Justice Stephen Breyer's opinion, "concurring in part and dissenting in part", cites neurological evidence for what might be a constitutionally defensible form of "linguistic regulation" [emphasis added]:

[S]cientific evidence suggests that certain highly vulgar words have a physiological and emotional impact that makes them different in kind from most other words. See M. Mohr, Holy S***: A Brief History of Swearing 252 (2013) (Mohr) (noting the “emotional impact” of certain profane words that “excite the lower-brain circuitry responsible for emotion,” resulting in “electrical impulses that can be measured in the skin”). These vulgar words originate in a different part of our brains than most other words. Id., at 250. And these types of swear words tend to attract more attention and are harder to forget than other words.

To avoid exciting those electrical impulses, Justice Breyer adds two additional asterisks to the title of Melissa Mohr's book, which OUP renders with one asterisk as Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.  As for the origins of "vulgar words" in the brain, Mohr indeed tells us on p. 250 that

Scientists have found that swearing most likely originates in the right hemisphere of the brain, and within that half, in the “primitive” part of the brain, the limbic system. The right half of the brain [which] is responsible for nonpropositional or automatic speech, which includes greetings, conventional expressions such as 'not at all,' counting, song lyrics, and swearwords. Propositional speech—words strung together in syntactically correct forms to create an original meaning—occurs in the left hemisphere.

But the evidence for this conclusion is weak, in my opinion. It seems to consist (almost?) entirely in the observation that when the dominant (usually left) hemisphere is out of commission, for whatever reason, the right hemisphere has limited abilities to initiate speech, including some cussing among other things. She notes that

Medical literature abounds with cases such as that of a man whose entire left hemisphere was surgically removed due to cancer, leaving him with the ability to say 'um,' 'one … three,' and 'goddammit.'

This tells us that the non-dominant hemisphere can usually say only a few stereotyped and overlearned things, and those badly . It doesn't tell us that the right hemisphere is in control when someone with an intact brain produces a filled pause like "um", counts to three, or cusses — the fact that the non-dominant hemisphere can cuss doesn't mean that the dominant hemisphere can't.

Mohr goes on to tell us that "Swearing, though, is a combination of left and right brain, executive and lower functions". And her endnotes for the quoted section cover a lot more than cussing:

Jay, Why We Curse, 33–62; Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2007), 331–37; Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, “Formulaic and Novel Language in a ‘Dual Process’ Model of Language Competence,” in Formulaic Language, ed. Roberta Corrigan et al. (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2009), 2:445–72; Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, “Where in the Brain Is Nonliteral Language?” Metaphor and Symbol 21, no. 4 (2006): 213–44.

As for the stuff about "the lower-brain circuitry responsible for emotion", Mohr's quote on p, 250 continues

The limbic system, particularly the amygdala, records the emotional content of words—their connotations, as opposed to denotations. The amygdala “lights up” during brain scans when subjects read taboo words, and this increased activity can also be measured through the skin with electrodes.

But my understanding of amygdala activity (and associated galvanic skin response) is that things are more complicated than that. For example, Bagshaw et al., "The GSR of monkeys during orienting and habituation and after ablation of the amygdala, hippocampus and inferotemporal cortex", Neuropsychologia 1965, tells us that

In an effort to locate within the brain those systems essential for orienting and habituation, monkeys with lesions in the temporal lobe were tested for galvanic skin responses to a repeated pure tone stimulus and to a novel tone.

Normal animals showed habituation of the GSR within 30 trials with distinctive reoccurrence of response to the novel tone. Animals with bilateral amygdalectomy had decreased GSR reactivity to both tones, whereas those with hippocampectomy and inferotemporal isocortex lesions had normal records.

Consideration of this result in light of previous findings of a defect in behavioral habituation after amygdalectomy leads to the suggestion that the orienting reaction is involved not in the generation of reaction to novelty but, rather, in its registration in the central nervous system.

Those monkeys' amydalas were reacting to novel tones, not to taboo words. The role of the (left and right) amygdalas is complicated, but it's just not true, as Justice Breyer implies, that we can distinguish "certain profane words" from other words simply by amydala responses or associated GSR readings. (And taboo words can be used to emphasize positive-valence reactions as well negative-valence ones.)

For a recent survey of the neurology of cussing, see Shlomit Finkelstein, "Swearing and the brain", in The Oxford Handbook of Taboo Words and Language, 2018. Finkelstein punctuates this 41-page review with eleven general  "lessons":

Lesson I: The right cortical hemisphere enables swearing.
Lesson II: Intact prefrontal cortex guards against swearing.
Lesson III: The right basal ganglia support automatic speech and swearing.
Lesson IV: The cingulate cortex is implicated in coprolalia.
Lesson V: Lesions in the prefrontal- and limbic-CSTC circuits are implicated in swearing.
Lesson VI: The cerebellum contributes to swearing.
Lesson VII: Studies of AD reinforce the role of the frontal cortex and the limbic system in swearing.
Lesson VIII: The neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin play a role in swearing.
Lesson IX: The hormones vasopressin and testosterone are involved in swearing.
Lesson XI: Bilateral IFG collaboration is necessary for inhibiting swearing.

Mohr's introduction begins

It was the last word my grandmother ever said to me. She was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease and didn’t speak at all as I helped her eat her lunch or even when I showed her family photos. I’m not sure she recognized me. When I took her for a walk outside in her wheelchair, though, she found her voice. I wheeled her over a crack in the sidewalk and her chair bumped. Out it came—“Shit!” This from a woman who, even when she was feeling particularly frustrated, had rarely gone further than “Nuts!” or “Darn it!” She relapsed into silence for the rest of my visit.

In 1866, the French poet Charles Baudelaire was laid low by a stroke. He lost his ability to speak, except for one phrase he repeated so often that the nuns taking care of him threw him out of their hospital: “Cré nom!”—short for sacré nom de Dieu. Today, the English equivalent to this would be the mild goddamn or damn, but in 1866 “Cré nom!” so unforgivably offended the nuns that they could explain Baudelaire’s outbursts only as the result of satanic possession.

Mohr concludes from this that:

Embedded deep within the brains of Baudelaire and my grandmother, remaining even when other language had been stripped away, were swearwords.

But Finkelstein's Lesson XI on inhibition is crucial here — the problem for Baudelaire and Mohr's grandmother was not simply that they retained the ability to cuss, but that they had lost to ability to decide not to, or perhaps the ability to judge whether to decide not to.  (Note also that there are contexts where lack of cussing is communicatively marked…)

Anyhow, to return to Justice Breyer's argument, I'm skeptical that neuroscience is going to provide a basis for determining that "highly vulgar words have a physiological and emotional impact that makes them different in kind from most other words". The physiological reactions to word perception involve responses from a complex network of brain regions, and interpreting these responses is at least as complicated as the problem of communicative interpretation in the absence of any physiological recordings, requiring us to disentangle contextual probability, interactional appropriateness, emotional valence, socio-political associations, and more.

As for the idea that "These vulgar words originate in a different part of our brains than most other words", the cited evidence about hemispheric abilities, if accepted as a criterion for distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable vocabulary, would lead us to ban registration of trademarks involving "nonpropositional or automatic speech, which includes greetings, conventional expressions such as 'not at all,' counting, song lyrics, and swearwords."

[Some addition background on the court case is here.]


  1. Y said,

    June 26, 2019 @ 11:29 pm

    Are there any cases in the literature of neurological abnormalities or damage preventing a person from swearing?

    (As a counterweight to lurid cases of coprolaliacs and cursing grannies.)

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 12:23 am

    @Y – In reality, I'm not sure … but in fiction, there is an interesting reference. In the movie "Southpark: Bigger, Longer, Uncut", the so-called V-chip is embedded into the brain of a child to neurologically activate the pain centers whenever the "potty mouth" part of the brain is activated – and thus prevent him from swearing. (Indeed, the entire film is a philosophical enquiry into the degree to which swearing is sinful.) It's a pretty fucking fantastic movie.

  3. Florence Artur said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 1:51 am

    "These vulgar words originate in a different part of our brains than most other words"

    Even supposing this is true, I fail to see the relevance to the matter the judges had to decide on. Apparently, just saying "it's hard-coded in our brain" (regardless whether true or not, or even whether relevant or not) can be used to justify pretty much anything…

    [(myl) In Breyer's defense, though: if it were really true that all words could be divided cleanly into two classes on the basis of their "origin" or "destination" in the brain, and if one of those classes happened to correspond closely with the set of "highly vulgar words" that offend people like him, then the neuroscience would give a more solid basis for a "linguistic regulation" of trademarks than just the fact that some judges don't like some words. But both parts of that conditional's protasis are false — it's not the case that either neural production mechanisms or neural perception processes define a clean division into just two well-separated word categories; and it's not the case that any of the loose neurologically-defined categories correspond very well to the words Breyer would apparently prefer to ban.]

  4. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 7:45 am

    In Britain, despite the absence of a rigorous free speech law, FCUK was a famous brand for many years.

  5. Jonathan said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 8:37 am

    Breyer's penchant for reliance on experts without any ability or even desire to assess the quality of the evidence is the continuation of a long unfortunate strain of judicial temperament which includes Holmes (Buck v Bell), Warren (Brown v Board of Education) and Blackmun (Roe v Wade) and its progenitor in then-advocate Brandeis' so-called "Brandeis brief." Independently of whether the decision itself is right or wrong, to me, it always makes really smart jurists sound like Cliff Clavin, with a need to buttress opinion with "modern" scientific material that doesn't hold up over time, undermining the rationale in the long run.

  6. Sili said,

    June 27, 2019 @ 8:48 am

    Not relevant to the neuroscience side of the matter, but I only now realise that I've completely misunderstood the nature of the product, because I've only heard about the case on podcasts. So until now I've thought they were selling clothes lines (for drying, you know).

    Reminds me of the ten minutes I spent trying to follow Maddow's exposition on 'cuttery' businesses.

  7. R. Fenwick said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 5:58 am

    @Mark Liberman:
    I'm skeptical that neuroscience is going to provide a basis for determining that "highly vulgar words have a physiological and emotional impact that makes them different in kind from most other words".

    I don't pretend to be any kind of neuroscientist and so can't speak to the state of the art more generally, but I could believe that there's at least something neuropsychologically specific going on with vulgarities that isn't involved with normal lexical words (though as you say, it's certainly more complex than this legal opinion is assuming and far more complex than a simple left/right hemispheric distinction can explain). A paper back in 2000 reported the case of a congenitally deaf L1 user of British Sign Language who also had Tourette's syndrome; in addition to the classic motor tics, his syndrome exhibited with all the characteristic language tics, most notably including signed coprolalia. A few similar cases of coprolalia in congenitally deaf sign-language users have subsequently been documented.

  8. R. Fenwick said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 6:02 am

    (Urgh, apologies for the premature posting with the dodgy HTML.) Though even in the reported case, the nature of this man's coprolalia was often influenced by context, which further confirms that there's another, contextually-sensitive layer of complexity to the brain's processing of what comprises an inappropriate or obscene word and when it does or does not do so.

  9. ktschwarz said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 9:08 am

    I haven't read Holy Sh*t, but I think of Melissa Mohr as one of the good ones among pop-linguistics writers on the basis of her short pieces in the Christian Science Monitor and other general newspapers. She wrote a nice appreciation of William Labov on the occasion of his 91st birthday last December. Very brief, but accurate as far as I can tell.

    Sounds like she's good on language itself, but knows no more about neuroscience than any other journalist (her degree is in medieval literature) and succumbed to the temptation to oversimplify. Then Breyer simplified her simplification.

  10. Observing said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 12:03 pm

    I am very much a layperson, but one of the clear issues I have with the idea that "swear words", "cussing", etc originate in a different part of the brain is that our reaction to swearing, or other varieties of words that "emotionally excite", is very context-sensitive. If I am at a concert, and I hear teenagers swearing, I don't think anything of it or react. But if I am at a professional luncheon, or picking my kids up from daycare, my reaction will be very different if one of the lunch attendees or one of the children loudly yells an expletive.

    Likewise, consider any number of slurs or epithets that exist for ethnicity, race, religion, disability, sexuality, and the like: if you are a member of a given community, you might react very differently to someone within your community using such a term, either as a joke or to establish familiarity, than if someone outside of your community, particularly a stranger and particularly if it does not sound friendly, uses such a term. This suggests that the response isn't "automatic" based purely on the words, and that there is some thought involved that multiple parts of the brain would be responsible for rather than just the limbic system in the right half.

  11. Justice Breyer’s opinion in the FUCT Trademark Case and the Neurology of Language – Grossly Offensive said,

    June 28, 2019 @ 5:08 pm

    […] Linguistics Prof. Mark Liberman has an interesting Language Log post expressing doubt about one aspect of Justice Breyer's approach in his Iancu v. Brunetti […]

  12. Brumel said,

    July 4, 2019 @ 5:14 am

    Although these are excellent points, my greater problem is not with the science but with the language. What is it supposed to mean that “words originate” in brain parts, or that “speech occurs” in the limbic system? These seem to be gross category errors. Neuroscientists are not looking to locate words in brain parts or eavesdrop on the amygdala’s sometimes salacious conversations with the frontal lobes. Yet the metaphorical language leads the Justice to believe that what runs along neural pathways and circuits are the electrochemical equivalents of actual words, and to see words as natural kinds possessing agency on specific brain structures. Which is plain nonsense both neurobiologically and linguistically.

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