A world of swearing

The Boston Globe has a short but fascinating interview on the history of swearing where author Melissa Mohr describes how the meaning of the act of swearing has changed over time.

IDEAS: Are there other old curses that 21st-century people would be surprised to hear about?

MOHR: Because [bad words] were mostly religious in the Middle Ages, any part of God’s body you could curse with. God’s bones, nails, wounds, precious heart, passion, God’s death—that was supposedly one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite oaths.

IDEAS: Have religious curses like that lost their power as the culture becomes increasingly secular?

MOHR: We still use them a lot, but we just don’t think of them as bad words. They’re very mild. If you look at lists of the top 25 swear words, I think “Jesus Christ” often makes it in at number 23 or something….The top bad words slots are all occupied by the racial slurs or obscene—sexually or excrementally—words…

IDEAS: Are blasphemy, sexuality, and excrement the main themes all over the world?

MOHR: As far as I know, they’re mostly the same with a little bit of regional variation. In Arab and Spanish-speaking Catholic countries, there’s a lot of stuff about mothers and sisters. But it’s pretty much the same.

Interesting, there is good evidence that swear words are handled differently by the brain than non-swear words.

In global aphasia, a form of almost total language impairment normally caused by brain damage to the left hemisphere, affected people can still usually swear despite being unable to say any other words.

Author Melissa Mohr has just written a book called Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing which presumably has plenty more for swearing fans.

Link to Boston Globe interview (via @leraboroditsky)
Link to details of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.

The uncertain dance of the spoken word

Stanford Magazine has a wonderful article by a writer who relies on lip-reading and experiences speech through this subtle movement-based language.

Rachel Kolb skilfully describes how this works, and more importantly, feels.

The part where she describes how she experiences accents is just amazing:

Accents are a visible tang on people’s lips. Witnessing someone with an accent is like taking a sip of clear water only to find it tainted with something else. I startle and leap to attention. As I explore the strange taste, my brain puzzles itself trying to pinpoint exactly what it is and how I should respond. I dive into the unfamiliar contortions of the lips, trying to push my way to some intelligible meaning. Accented words pull against the gravity of my experience; like slime-glossed fish, they wriggle and leap out of my hands. Staring down at my fingers’ muddy residue, my only choice is to shrug and cast out my line again.

The full article is highly recommended. Both fascinating and wonderfully written.

Link to ‘Seeing at the Speed of Sound’ (via and thanks to @stevesilberman)

Deaf police to monitor security cameras in Mexico

Deaf police officers have been recruited to monitor security cameras in the Mexican city of Oaxaca because of their ‘heightened visual abilities’.

There’s a brief and somewhat clunky English-language news article from the local paper that describes the project:

Ignacio Villalobos Carranza, Deputy Secretary for the Ministry of Public Security of Oaxaca, said most of the monitoring of the 230 cameras is done by law enforcement officials that are hearing or speech impaired. He noted these police officers have a very strong deaf and visual sense and can better detect what is happening in different places where the cameras are located; they can often remotely read the conversations of people, to the benefit of this security system that operates 24 hours a day.

The ability to lip read conversations is a fantastic advantage, but the project raises the question of whether deaf people would actually be better at security monitoring in general.

As far as I know, there are no studies comparing hearing and deaf people on specific monitoring tasks but there is evidence that deaf people have certain advantages in visual attention.

This isn’t vision in general, such as having sharper visual acuity – where there seems to be no difference, but there is good evidence that deaf people are better at noticing things in the periphery of vision and detecting movement.

This potentially makes them perfect for the job and likely better than their hearing colleagues.

So the project turns out to be a targeted way not of recruiting ‘disabled people’ into the workforce, but of recruiting the ‘super able’. In fact, turning the whole idea of disability on its head.

There’s also a Spanish-language video report from BBC Mundo if you want more información.

Link to brief new article on the project.
Link to Spanish-language video report from BBC Mundo.

An unplanned post-mortem

My latest Beyond Boundaries column for The Psychologist explores the space between he we study suicide and the experience of families affected by it:

Suicide is often considered a silencing, but for many it is only the beginning of the conversation. A common approach to understand those who have ended their own lives is the ‘psychological autopsy’ – a method that seeks to reconstruct the mental state of the deceased individual shortly before the final act. The testimony of friends and family is filtered through standardised assessments and psychiatric diagnoses. The narrative is ‘stripped down’ to the essential facts. A life is reduced to risk factors.

Psychologists Christabel Owens and Helen Lambert were struck by the contrast between the goal of the professionals in the interviews and how the friends and family of the deceased used the opportunity to tell their story and to make sense of their loss. ‘The flow of narrative’, they note in their recent study, ‘can often be unstoppable’. The researchers returned to the transcripts of a 2003 psychological autopsy study, but instead of using the interview to construct variables, they looked at how the friends and families portrayed their lost companion.

As suicide is both stigmatised and stigmatising the personal accounts often contained portrayals of events that presupposed possible moral conclusions about the deceased. For example, by tradition, those who have cancer are discussed as heroic fighters, facing down death with courage and resolution. The default stories about people who commit suicide are not nearly so generous, however, and to navigate this treacherous moral territory bereaved friends and family often called on other, more acceptable, social stereotypes to make sense of the situation.

The suicides of women were largely portrayed in medical terms, as being so weakened by negative experiences that they were unable to prevent a decline into mental illness. The suicides of men, on the other hand, were barely ever described in terms of mental disorder. Male suicide was typically described either as the end result of having ‘gone of the rails’, a self-directed descent into antisocial behaviour, or as a ‘heroic’ action, demonstrating a final defiant act against an unjust world.

Deaths were filtered through gender stereotypes of agency and accountability, perhaps to make them more acceptable to an unkind world. Owens and Lambert’s study highlights the stark contrast between how researchers and family members interpret the same tragic events. As professionals, we often do surprisingly little to mesh together the bounded worlds of science and subjectivity, but the study demonstrates the power of the personal narrative. It affects us even after death.

Thanks to Jon Sutton, editor of The Psychologist who has kindly agreed for me to publish my column on Mind Hacks as long as I include the following text:

“The Psychologist is sent free to all members of the British Psychological Society (you can join here), or you can subscribe as a non-member by going here.

Link to original behind pay wall.

BBC Future column: earworms

From a couple of weeks ago, my column from BBC Future, about everyday brain quirks (as I’ve mentioned previously). Thanks to Maria Panagiotidi for help with this one.

“Earworms”, some people call them. Songs that get stuck in your head and go round and round, sometimes for days, sometimes for months. For no apparent reason you cannot help yourself from humming or singing a tune by Lady Gaga or Coldplay, or horror upon horrors, the latest American Idol reject.

To a psychologist – or at least to this psychologist – the most interesting thing about earworms is that they show a part of our mind that is clearly outside of our control. Earworms arrive without permission and refuse to leave when we tell them to. They are parasites, living in a part of our minds that rehearses sounds.

We all get these musical memories, and people appear to have different ones, according to a team at Goldsmiths University in London, who collected a database of over 5,000 earworms. True, the songs that we get stuck with tend to be simple and repetitive, but it seems we are not all singing the same number one song at the same time.

Lost in music

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia that earworms are a clear sign of “the overwhelming, and at times, helpless, sensitivity of our brains to music”. Music is defined by repetition, just like earworms, and this might make earworms so hard to shake – they are musical memories that loop, say a particular verse or a hook, forever repeating rather than running to completion. Some people report that singing an earworm to the end can help get rid of it (others report in frustration that this does not work at all).

As well as containing repetition, music is also unusual among the things we regularly encounter for being so similar each time we hear it. Fences are visually repetitive, for example, but each time you see the same fence you will look at it from a different angle, or in different light. Put a song on your stereo and the sound comes out virtually identical each time. Remembering is powerfully affected by repetition, so maybe the similarity of music engraves deep grooves in our mind. Grooves in which earworms can thrive.

Another fact about earworms is that they often seem to have something interesting or usual about them. Although they will often be simple and repetitive bits of music, tunes that become earworms have a little twist or peculiarity, something that makes them “catchy”, and perhaps this is a clue as to why they can take hold in our memory system. If there was nothing unique about them they would be swamped by all the other memories that sound similar too.

Slave to the rhythm

If you have got a particularly persistent earworm you can suffer an attack of it merely by someone mentioning the tune, without having to hear it. This proves that earworms are a phenomenon of long-term memory, rather than merely being a temporary “after-image” in sound.

But this is not the whole story. Human memory researchers have identified so called “slave systems” in our short-term memory, components of the mind which capture sights and sounds, keeping them alive for a short time while we focus on them.

One slave system is the “mind’s eye”, capturing visual information, another is the “inner ear”, the part we use for remembering phone numbers, for instance. It is this second part that seems to get infected with earworms. Rather than rehearse our plans for the day, idle thoughts, or lists of things to remember, the inner ear gets stuck on a few short bars of music or a couple of phrases from a song. A part of us that we normally do not have to think about, that should just do what we ask, has been turned against us, tormenting us with a jukebox request that we never asked for.

That our minds are not a unity is one of the basic insights of modern psychology – it is the story Dr Freud was telling, and, although it differs on many of the details, modern cognitive neuroscience says a similar thing. The sense of our selves is not the only thing going on in our minds, psychology says. The mind is an inner world which we do not have complete knowledge of, or have control over.

Mind games

Fortunately psychology can provide some vital intelligence on how to deal with an unruly mind. Consider the famous “don’t think of a white bear” problem, which as it implies involves trying not to think about white bears. Try this yourself, or you can set it as a challenge for a loved one you would like to torment. This problem is a paradox: by trying not to think of a thing you constantly have to be checking if you are still thinking of it – re-invoking precisely the thing you are trying not to think of.

The general solution for the white bear problem is to do something else, to avoid both thinking of the white bear and not thinking of the white bear. For earworms, the solution may be the same. Our inner ear, a vital part of our cognitive machinery for remembering and rehearsing sounds, has become infected with an earworm. This is a part of ourselves which is not under our control, so just sending in instructions to “shut up” is unlikely to be of much help (and has been shown to make it worse). Much better is to employ the inner ear in another task, preferably something incompatible with rehearsing the earworm.

If earworms survive because of their peculiarity, the hook that makes them catch, then my prediction for ridding yourself of an earworm is to sing songs that are similar. If your mind is poisoned by Brittany Spears’ Toxic, for instance, then try singing Kylie Minogue’s appropriately titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. By my theory this will erode the uniqueness of the memory habitat that lets the earworm survive. Let me know if it works!

Link: My columns at BBC Future
Link: UK readers – you’ll have to try it via here

Sound trip

A fascinating excerpt about a hallucinogenic drug called DiPT that only causes hearing distortions – from p310 of the book Hallucinations: Research and Practice:

A member of the tryptamine chemical family, diisopropyltryptamine (DiPT) is a fascinating substance because, unlike most hallucinogens, its effect are predominantly auditory. It is also probably less sensitive than other hallucinogens to the mindset of the user, the setting in which it is ingested, and other psychological considerations, perhaps because the auditory system has become less salient to the human organism as we have evolved into a vision based species.

In general, auditory pitch is perceived as lower than normal, and harmonious sounds lose their resonance with one another. This dissonance is even perceived by people with perfect pitch, which has some implications about where in the processing stream DiPT’s effects occur. Voices are also altered and disharmonious with each other.

DiPT has a few other known effects; it would seem to call for further investigation from those interested in the neurology of sound, music and verbal language processing. For example, it would be fascinating to know the effects of this substance on perceptions of tonal languages such as Chinese, Huichol, or Dogon; would it alter the words perceived as being spoken?


Link to book details.

Buried words

I’ve just found a fantastic video that explains the speech-impairing disorder aphasia to children of all ages.

Its called ‘The Treasure Hunt’ and was created by speech pathologist Shiree Heath and it went on to win first place in the Society for Neuroscience’s video competition.

The video combines a cartoon treasure hunt with recordings of a real-life aphasia patient who seems to be affected by a type of anomic aphasia where affected people have trouble with saying names of objects or items.

It’s worth noting that this is only one of many types of speech-affecting aphasias that are possible after brain damage, although this is perhaps the one that has been most delightfully described so far.

Link to The Treasure Hunt video (via @mocost)