Posts Tagged ‘mental health’

By Elizabeth Bernstein

You’re feeling depressed. What have you been eating?

Psychiatrists and therapists don’t often ask this question. But a growing body of research over the past decade shows that a healthy diet—high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and unprocessed lean red meat—can prevent depression. And an unhealthy diet—high in processed and refined foods—increases the risk for the disease in everyone, including children and teens.

Now recent studies show that a healthy diet may not only prevent depression, but could effectively treat it once it’s started.

Researchers, led by epidemiologist Felice Jacka of Australia’s Deakin University, looked at whether improving the diets of people with major depression would help improve their mood. They chose 67 people with depression for the study, some of whom were already being treated with antidepressants, some with psychotherapy, and some with both. Half of these people were given nutritional counseling from a dietitian, who helped them eat healthier. Half were given one-on-one social support—they were paired with someone to chat or play cards with—which is known to help people with depression.

After 12 weeks, the people who improved their diets showed significantly happier moods than those who received social support. And the people who improved their diets the most improved the most. The study was published in January 2017 in BMC Medicine. A second, larger study drew similar conclusions and showed that the boost in mood lasted six months. It was led by researchers at the University of South Australia and published in December 2017 in Nutritional Neuroscience.

And later this month in Los Angeles at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting, researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago will present results from their research that shows that elderly adults who eat vegetables, fruits and whole grains are less likely to develop depression over time.

The findings are spurring the rise of a new field: nutritional psychiatry. Dr. Jacka helped to found the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research in 2013. It held its first conference last summer. She’s also launched Deakin University’s Food & Mood Centre, which is dedicated to researching and developing nutrition-based strategies for brain disorders.

The annual American Psychiatric Association conference has started including presentations on nutrition and psychiatry, including one last year by chef David Bouley on foods that support the peripheral nervous system. And some medical schools, including Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, are starting to teach psychiatry residents about the importance of diet on mental health.

Depression has many causes—it may be genetic, triggered by a specific event or situation, such as loneliness, or brought on by lifestyle choices. But it’s really about an unhealthy brain, and too often people forget this. “When we think of cardiac health, we think of strengthening an organ, the heart,” says Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist in New York, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia and author of “Eat Complete.” “We need to start thinking of strengthening another organ, the brain, when we think of mental health.”

A bad diet makes depression worse, failing to provide the brain with the variety of nutrients it needs, Dr. Ramsey says. And processed or deep-fried foods often contain trans fats that promote inflammation, believed to be a cause of depression. To give people evidenced-based information, Dr. Ramsey created an e-course called “Eat to Beat Depression.”

A bad diet also affects our microbiome—the trillions of micro-organisms that live in our gut. They make molecules that can alter the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in the brain, says Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist, nutritionist and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. The good and bad bacteria in our gut have complex ways to communicate with our brain and change our mood, she says. We need to maximize the good bacteria and minimize the bad.

So what should we eat? The research points to a Mediterranean-style diet made up primarily of fruits and vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, yogurt and cheese, legumes, nuts, seafood, whole grains and small portions of red meat. The complexity of this diet will provide the nutrition our brain needs, regulate our inflammatory response and support the good bacteria in our gut, says Dr. Mosconi, author of “Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power.”

Can a good diet replace medicine or therapy? Not for everyone. But people at risk for depression should pay attention to the food they eat. “It really doesn’t matter if you need Prozac or not. We know that your brain needs nutrients,” Dr. Ramsey says. A healthy diet may work even when other treatments fail. And at the very least, it can serve as a supplemental treatment—one with no bad side effects, unlike antidepressants—that also has a giant upside. It can prevent other health problems, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Loretta Go, a 60-year-old mortgage consultant in Ballwin, Mo., suffered from depression for decades. She tried multiple antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy, but found little relief from symptoms including insomnia, crying jags and feelings of hopelessness. About five years ago, after her doctor wanted to prescribe yet another antidepressant, she refused the medicine and decided to look for alternative treatments.

Ms. Go began researching depression and learned about the importance of diet. When she read that cashews were effective in reducing depression symptoms, she ordered 100 pounds, stored them in the freezer, and started putting them in all her meals.

She also ditched processed and fried foods, sugar and diet sodas. In their place, she started to eat primarily vegetables and fruits, eggs, turkey and a lot of tofu. She bought a Vitamix blender and started making a smoothie with greens for breakfast each morning.

Within a few months, Ms. Go says she noticed a difference in her mood. She stopped crying all the time. Her insomnia went away and she had more energy. She also began enjoying activities again that she had given up when she was depressed, such as browsing in bookstores and volunteering at the animal shelter.

Ms. Go’s depression has never come back. “This works so well,” she says. “How come nobody else talks about this?”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-food-that-helps-battle-depression-1522678367

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By Jane Ridley

Four years ago, Lillyth Quillan cowered behind a padlocked door as her teenage son, taller and stronger than she is, paced back and forth in a rage.

Suddenly he went quiet. “Don’t let me hurt you, Mom,” he said, his voice sounding chillingly calm.

It was the first time the high school freshman had used that particular tone, but he continued to deploy it as he menaced his mom and dad.

“He used the kind of language of abusive husbands — manipulating and controlling,” says Quillan, who had installed locks on every door in her house except her son’s bedroom. “I was terrified of what he was going to do next.”

The boy — whom Quillan chooses to call Kevin in her interview with The Post in reference to the unnerving Lionel Shriver novel “We Need To Talk About Kevin” about a school shooter in upstate New York — was out of control.

After years of cruel and violent behavior plus multiple suspensions and expulsions from school, psychiatrists finally diagnosed the then-14-year-old Kevin with “conduct disorder,” which, in its most extreme form, can be a precursor to psychopathy.

Psychopathy, which is often used interchangeably with the term sociopathy, is believed to affect 1 percent of adults. Key attributes that sociopaths and psychopaths have in common include a disregard for laws, social mores and the rights of others, a failure to feel remorse or guilt and, in some but not all cases, a tendency to violence.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) dictates that people under the age of 18 cannot be labelled psychopaths. However, in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association decided to include the condition “conduct disorder with callous and unemotional traits” for children ages 12 and over.

According to a 2001 report published in the journal American Family Physician, approximately 6 to 16 percent of boys and 2 to 9 percent of girls meet the diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder — only a fraction of which have the “callous and unemotional” label that can potentially lead to psychopathy in adulthood.

More than 50 studies have found that kids with the latter diagnosis are more likely to become criminals or display aggressive, psychopathic traits later in life. It has been reported that Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who allegedly shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month showed classic signs of the disorder as a child, including abusing animals.

“Psychopaths don’t just appear when they are 20. They are always different from an early age,” Kent Kiehl, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico and the author of “The Psychopath Whisperer,” tells The Post.

Characteristics to look for — as detailed in the widely used Hare Psychopathy Checklist Youth Version considered by clinicians and researchers to be the “gold standard” in assessing psychopathy — include lack of empathy, lack of guilt and regret, pathological lying, grandiose self-worth and failure to accept responsibility for actions such as fighting and bullying.

“Individuals who score high on those traits are more likely to produce further violence,” adds Kiehl. “If they are sanctioned but continue on the same path, it’s not a perfect indicator, but it’s enough to cause concern.”

Kiehl notes that research has shown that psychopathy is hereditary roughly half of the time. But his own breakthrough was the discovery that the psychopathic brain has a different structure than a “normal” one.

In 2014, he conducted a major study that found at least two abnormalities in the brains of adult psychopaths. There was a lack of gray matter in the section involved in processing emotions, while the area that reacts to excitement and thrills is overactive. Although the research has not been carried out yet, the pattern is likely to also occur in the brains of “callous and unemotional” children. “Brain science has helped us understand what is different about these kids,” adds Kiehl.

At the moment, there is no such thing as a “cure” for psychopathy or conduct disorder. But early intervention can be key for harm reduction, even with children as young as 2 or 3.

Paul Frick, a psychology professor at Louisiana State University and the author of “Conduct Disorder and Severe Antisocial Behavior,” recommends a range of therapies, most of which revolve around rewards systems rather than punishments.

“There are so-called ‘emotion coaching’ techniques that parents and therapists can employ to help children pay attention to the feelings of others,” he explains. “We find that they miss the cues that another child is upset.

“By saying: ‘Can you see how Johnny is feeling?’ [when a toy is snatched from him] and getting them to respond correctly, you can motivate them. You give them a star or a sticker as an incentive.

“Even though it doesn’t come naturally to them, they can learn others’ perspectives.”

Experts can identify a callous and unemotional child when they are as young as 3 or 4. Faced with a crying peer, typically developing children either try to comfort them or take flight. But those with the mental condition remain in place, showing apathy and coldness.

Remarkably, the psychology department at King’s College London has been able to trace the characteristics back to infancy. They tested more than 200 babies at 5 months old, tracking whether they preferred looking at a person’s face or at a red ball. The tots who favored the ball displayed more callous traits two and a half years later.

For Quillan, hindsight is 20/20, but she distinctly recalls the first signs that Kevin had behavioral issues at the age of just 8 months.

“He had teeth and would bite me while he was breast-feeding and he would laugh. He thought it was hilarious. I tried looking very sad and mimicking crying to show it was hurting me, but he would only laugh,” says Quillan, who ended up having to put him on formula.

“It didn’t occur to me until much later that this was a child for whom the amusement of my reaction when he bit me was a greater reward than food.”

Now 18, Kevin, who has had numerous run-ins with police, including for shoplifting, was made a ward of state and no longer lives with his parents. He lives in a residential school for “at-risk” youth in California, where he is on a waiting list to receive treatment, such as therapy, to build empathy.

“Because there is no real treatment for conduct disorder. All you can do is wait for your child to be arrested and enter the juvenile system and hope they get better,” says his 40-year-old homemaker mom.

“Luckily, Kevin is no longer violent and is actually cooperative.”

He is doing so well that he is about to receive his high school diploma, recently won an award for wrestling and has encouraged his mother to tell his story.

Now Quillian, who has no other kids, is focusing on advocacy and encouraging parents facing similar nightmares to hers. Three years ago, she formed a support group for families with kids with CD that has 420 members worldwide. More recently, she launched the Society for Treatment Options for Potential Psychopaths to bring awareness and to campaign for treatment for these children before they cause serious harm.

Adds Quillan: “As every news article came out about Parkland and Nikolas Cruz, I thought: ‘My God, this could easily be one of our kids.’”

https://nypost.com/2018/03/07/how-to-tell-if-your-child-is-a-future-psychopath/


3D reconstruction of a serotonin receptor generated by cryo-electron microscopy

by Rebecca Pool

Claiming a world first and using cryo-electron microscopy, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, US, have observed full-length serotonin receptors. The proteins are common drug targets, and the new images provide details about molecular binding sites that could lead to more precise drug design. Serotonin receptors, which reside in cell membranes throughout the body, are highly dynamic and difficult to image. In the past, the receptors have been sectioned into pieces to study, but by capturing full-length samples, researchers have revealed how different portions interact.

Dr Sandip Basak from Physiology and Biophysics, and colleagues, describe ‘a finely tuned orchestration of three domain movements’ that allows the receptors to elegantly control passageways across cell membranes. “The serotonin receptor acts as a gateway, or channel, from outside the cell to inside,” he says. “When serotonin binds onto the receptor, the channel switches conformation from closed to open. It eventually twists into a ‘desensitized’ state, where the channel closes but serotonin remains attached,” he adds. “This prevents it from being reactivated.”

For this study, the researchers used a FEI Titan Krios microscope, operating at 300 kV, and equipped with a Gatan K2-Summit direct detector camera, at the National Cryo-Electron Microscopy Facility in Frederick, Maryland.

“Successful design of safer therapeutics [for cancer therapies and gastrointestinal diseases] has slowed because there is currently a limited understanding of the structure of the serotonin receptor itself, and what happens after serotonin binds,” says research leader, Professor Sudha Chakrapani. “Our new structure of the serotonin receptor in the resting state has the potential to serve as a structural blueprint to drive targeted drug design and better therapeutic strategies.”

This research is published in Nature Communications.

https://microscopy-analysis.com/editorials/editorial-listings/first-images-full-length-receptor-structure

From the way you move and sleep, to how you interact with people around you, depression changes just about everything. It is even noticeable in the way you speak and express yourself in writing. Sometimes this “language of depression” can have a powerful effect on others. Just consider the impact of the poetry and song lyrics of Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, who both killed themselves after suffering from depression.

Scientists have long tried to pin down the exact relationship between depression and language, and technology is helping us get closer to a full picture. Our new study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, has now unveiled a class of words that can help accurately predict whether someone is suffering from depression.

Traditionally, linguistic analyses in this field have been carried out by researchers reading and taking notes. Nowadays, computerised text analysis methods allow the processing of extremely large data banks in minutes. This can help spot linguistic features which humans may miss, calculating the percentage prevalence of words and classes of words, lexical diversity, average sentence length, grammatical patterns and many other metrics.

So far, personal essays and diary entries by depressed people have been useful, as has the work of well-known artists such as Cobain and Plath. For the spoken word, snippets of natural language of people with depression have also provided insight. Taken together, the findings from such research reveal clear and consistent differences in language between those with and without symptoms of depression.

Content
Language can be separated into two components: content and style. The content relates to what we express – that is, the meaning or subject matter of statements. It will surprise no one to learn that those with symptoms of depression use an excessive amount of words conveying negative emotions, specifically negative adjectives and adverbs – such as “lonely”, “sad” or “miserable”.

More interesting is the use of pronouns. Those with symptoms of depression use significantly more first person singular pronouns – such as “me”, “myself” and “I” – and significantly fewer second and third person pronouns – such as “they”, “them” or “she”. This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words.

We know that rumination (dwelling on personal problems) and social isolation are common features of depression. However, we don’t know whether these findings reflect differences in attention or thinking style. Does depression cause people to focus on themselves, or do people who focus on themselves get symptoms of depression?

Style
The style of language relates to how we express ourselves, rather than the content we express. Our lab recently conducted a big data text analysis of 64 different online mental health forums, examining over 6,400 members. “Absolutist words” – which convey absolute magnitudes or probabilities, such as “always”, “nothing” or “completely” – were found to be better markers for mental health forums than either pronouns or negative emotion words.

From the outset, we predicted that those with depression will have a more black and white view of the world, and that this would manifest in their style of language. Compared to 19 different control forums (for example, Mumsnet and StudentRoom), the prevalence of absolutist words is approximately 50% greater in anxiety and depression forums, and approximately 80% greater for suicidal ideation forums.

Pronouns produced a similar distributional pattern as absolutist words across the forums, but the effect was smaller. By contrast, negative emotion words were paradoxically less prevalent in suicidal ideation forums than in anxiety and depression forums.

Our research also included recovery forums, where members who feel they have recovered from a depressive episode write positive and encouraging posts about their recovery. Here we found that negative emotion words were used at comparable levels to control forums, while positive emotion words were elevated by approximately 70%. Nevertheless, the prevalence of absolutist words remained significantly greater than that of controls, but slightly lower than in anxiety and depression forums.

Crucially, those who have previously had depressive symptoms are more likely to have them again. Therefore, their greater tendency for absolutist thinking, even when there are currently no symptoms of depression, is a sign that it may play a role in causing depressive episodes. The same effect is seen in use of pronouns, but not for negative emotion words.

Practical implications
Understanding the language of depression can help us understand the way those with symptoms of depression think, but it also has practical implications. Researchers are combining automated text analysis with machine learning (computers that can learn from experience without being programmed) to classify a variety of mental health conditions from natural language text samples such as blog posts.

Such classification is already outperforming that made by trained therapists. Importantly, machine learning classification will only improve as more data is provided and more sophisticated algorithms are developed. This goes beyond looking at the broad patterns of absolutism, negativity and pronouns already discussed. Work has begun on using computers to accurately identify increasingly specific subcategories of mental health problems – such as perfectionism, self-esteem problems and social anxiety.

That said, it is of course possible to use a language associated with depression without actually being depressed. Ultimately, it is how you feel over time that determines whether you are suffering. But as the World Health Organisation estimates that more than 300m people worldwide are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% since 2005, having more tools available to spot the condition is certainly important to improve health and prevent tragic suicides such as those of Plath and Cobain.

https://theconversation.com/people-with-depression-use-language-differently-heres-how-to-spot-it-90877

Bipolar Disorder (BD) is a multifactorial brain disorder in which patients experience radical shifts in mood and undergo periods of depression followed by periods of mania. It has been known for some time that both environmental and genetic factors play important roles in the disease. For instance, being exposed to high levels of stress for long periods, and especially during childhood, has been associated with the development of BD.

Immediate early genes (IEGs) are a class of genes that respond very rapidly to environmental stimuli, and that includes stress. IEGs respond to a stressor by activating other genes that lead to neuronal plasticity, the ability of brain cells to change in form and function in response to changes in the environment. Ultimately, it is the process of neuronal plasticity that gives the brain the ability to learn from and adapt to new experiences.

One type of protein produced by IEGs is the so-called Early Growth Response (EGR) proteins, which translate environmental influence into long-term changes in the brain. These proteins are found throughout the brain and are highly produced in response to environmental changes such as stressful stimuli and sleep deprivation. Without the action played out by these proteins, brain cells and the brain itself cannot appropriately respond to the many stimuli that are constantly received from the environment.

Effective neuronal plasticity also depends on neurotrophins, which are regulatory factors that promote development and survival of brain cells. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is the neurotrophin mostly found in the brain. It has been extensively investigated in BD patients and has been suggested as a hallmark of BD. Indeed, some studies have shown that the levels of BDNF in the serum of BD patients are reduced whenever patients undergo a period of depression, hypomania, or mania. Other studies have shown that regardless of mood state, BD patients present reduced levels of BDNF. Overall, changes in BDNF levels seem to be a characteristic found in BD patients that may contribute to the pathophysiology of the disease.

Now an international team of researchers from Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, University of Arizona College of Medicine in the United States and McMaster University in Canada have published an article connecting the dots between these two players to explain the impaired cellular resilience observed in BD that in the grand scheme of things may relate to the impaired resilience presented by BD patients to respond to events, including stress.

In a previous study done by the group in 2016, one type of IEG gene known as EGR3, that normally responds to environmental events and stressful stimuli, was found repressed in the brain of BD patients, suggesting that when facing a stressor, the EGR3 in BD patients does not respond to the stimulus appropriately. Indeed, BD patients are highly prone to stress and have more difficulties dealing with stress or adapting to it if compared to healthy individuals. What the research group is now suggesting is that both EGR3 and BDNF may each play a critical role in the impaired cellular resilience seen in BD, and that each of these two genes may affect each other’s expression in the cell. “We believe that the reduced level of BDNF that has been extensively observed in BD patients is caused by the fact that EGR3 is repressed in the brain of BD patients. The two molecules are interconnected in a regulatory pathway that is disrupted in BD patients,” says Fabio Klamt, leading author of the article entitled “EGR3 immediate early gene and the brain-derived neurotrophic factor in bipolar disorder” and published on February 5th in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The authors also add that the fact that EGR3 responds very quickly to environmental stimuli renders the molecule a potential drug target. “It is possible to imagine that EGR3 may be modulated in order to increase its expression and that of BDNF, which may have a positive impact on BD patients,” says Bianca Pfaffenseller, a scientist working at Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre, in Brazil, and the first author of the study.

The idea that mental disorders should be seen as any other chronic disease in which the underlying biology plays an important role has replaced the old descriptions of mental illnesses as the result of bad psychological influences. As Nobel prize laureate Eric Kandel has said, “all mental processes are brain processes and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases.” The perspective article authored by Fabio Klamt and colleagues supports this view by offering new insights into the underlying biology of this lifelong and devastating mental disorder affecting millions of people worldwide.

This article has been republished from materials provided by Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

Reference
Pfaffenseller, B., Kapczinski, F., Gallitano, A., & Klamt, F. (2018). EGR3 immediate early gene and the brain-derived neurotrophic factor in bipolar disorder. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12, 15.

https://www.technologynetworks.com/genomics/news/potential-drug-target-for-bipolar-identified-297204?utm_campaign=Newsletter_TN_BreakingScienceNews&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=60440362&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-89oHJTQFUqboYjSURU_IOr9bzx6r5zFJCMV1mEAzlZHgi02vXuuEgb5JNs196HT9b7QaknWb1xraugbZ8U_bITr6Kw-A&_hsmi=60440362

ndividuals with acne have a significantly increased risk for depression within the first 5 years after receiving an acne diagnosis, according to a recent study.

For their study, Dr Isabelle Vallerand, of the University of Calgary in Canada, and colleagues obtained and evaluated patient data from the 1986-2012 Health Improvement Network (THIN) in the United Kingdom.

Results of the analysis revealed that individuals with acne had a 63% higher risk for depression within 1 year after diagnosis compared with individuals without acne, thus indicating the importance of evaluating patients with acne for symptoms of depression.

“This study highlights an important link between skin disease and mental illness,” Dr Vallerand said in a press release.

“Given the risk of depression was highest in the period right after the first time a patient presented to a physician for acne concerns, it shows just how impactful our skin can be towards our overall mental health.”

—Christina Vogt

Reference:

Vallerand IA, Lewinson RT, Parsons LM, et al. Risk of depression among patients with acne in the U.K.: a population-based cohort study [published online February 7, 2018]. Brit J Dermatol. doi:10.1111/bjd.16099.

https://www.consultant360.com/exclusives/acne-inflates-depression-risk-63

By Simon Worrall

wearing is usually regarded as simply lazy language or an abusive lapse in civility. But as Emma Byrne shows in her book, Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, new research reveals that profanity has many positive virtues, from promoting trust and teamwork in the office to increasing our tolerance to pain.

When National Geographic caught up with Byrne at her home in London, she explained why humans aren’t the only primates that can curse and why, though women are swearing more today than before, it is still regarded by many as “unfeminine.”

You write, “I’ve had a certain pride in my knack for colorful and well-timed swearing.” Tell us about your relationship to bad language, and in what sense it is good for us?

My first memory of being punished for swearing was calling my little brother a four-letter word, twat, which I thought was just an odd pronunciation of the word twit. I must have been about eight at the time; my brother was still pre-school. My mother froze, then belted me round the ear. That made me realize that some words had considerably more power than others, and that the mere shift in a vowel was enough to completely change the emotional impact of a word.

I’ve always had a curiosity about things I’ve been told I am not meant to be interested in, which is why I wound up in a fairly male-dominated field of artificial intelligence for my career. There’s a certain cussedness to my personality that means, as soon as someone says, “No, that’s not for you,” I absolutely have to know about it.

My relationship with swearing is definitely one example. I tend to use it as a way of marking myself out as being more like my male colleagues, like having a working knowledge of the offside rule in soccer. It’s a good way of making sure that I’m not seen as this weird, other person, based on my gender.

There’s great research coming out of Australia and New Zealand, which is perhaps not surprising, that says that jocular abuse, particularly swearing among friends, is a strong signal of the degree of trust that those friends share. When you look at the transcripts of these case studies of effective teams in sectors like manufacturing and IT, those that can joke with each other in ways that transgress polite speech, which includes a lot of swearing, tend to report that they trust each other more.

One of the reasons why there’s probably this strong correlation is that swearing has such an emotional impact. You’re demonstrating that you have a sophisticated theory of mind about the person that you’re talking to, and that you have worked out where the limit is between being shocking enough to make them giggle or notice you’ve used it but not so shocking that they’ll be mortally offended. That’s a hard target to hit right in the bullseye. Using swear words appropriate for that person shows how well you know them; and how well you understand their mental model.

You were inspired to write this book by a study carried out by Dr. Richard Stephens. Tell us about the experiment, and why it was important in our understanding of swearing.

Richard Stephens works out of Keele University in the U.K. He’s a behavioral psychologist, who is interested in why we do things that we’ve been told are bad for us. For years, the medical profession has been saying that swearing is incredibly bad for you if you’re in pain. It’s what’s called a “catastrophizing response,” focusing on the negative thing that’s happened. His take on this was, if it’s so maladaptive, why do we keep doing it?

He initially had 67 volunteers, although he’s replicated this multiple times. He stuck their hands in ice water and randomized whether or not they were using a swear word or a neutral word and compared how long they could keep their hands in ice water. On average, when they were swearing they could keep their hands in the iced water for half as long again as when they were using a neutral word. This shows that the results are anything but maladaptive. Swearing really does allow you to withstand pain for longer.

Have men always sworn more than women? And, if so, why?

Definitely not! Historians of the English language describe how women were equally praised for their command of exceedingly expressive insults and swearing, right up to the point in 1673 when a book by Richard Allestree was published titled The Ladies Calling.” Allestree says that women who swear are acting in a way that is biologically incompatible with being a woman and, as a result, will begin to take on masculine characteristics, like growing facial hair or becoming infertile. He wrote, “There is no sound more odious to the ears of God than an oath in the mouth of a woman.”

Today we are horribly still in the same place on men versus women swearing. Although women are still considered to swear less than men, we know from studies that they don’t. They swear just as much as men. But attitudinal surveys show that both men and women tend to judge women’s swearing much more harshly. And that judgement can have serious implications. For example, when women with breast cancer or arthritis swear as a result of their condition, they’re much more likely to lose friends, particularly female friends. Whereas men who swear about conditions like testicular cancer tend to bond more closely with other men using the same vocabulary. The idea that swearing is a legitimate means of expressing a negative emotion is much more circumscribed for women.

I was fascinated to discover that it’s not just humans that swear—primates do it, too! Tell us about Project Washoe.

Out in the wild, chimps are inveterate users of their excrement to mark their territory or show their annoyance. So the first thing you do, if you want to teach a primate sign language, is potty train them. That means, just like human children at a similar age, that they end up with a taboo around excrement. In Project Washoe, the sign for “dirty” was bringing the knuckles up to the underside of the chin. And what happened spontaneously, without the scientists teaching them, was that the chimps started to use the sign for “dirty” in exactly the same way as we use our own excremental swear words.

Washoe was a female chimpanzee that was originally adopted by R. Allen Gardner and Beatrix T. Gardner in the 1960s. Later, she was taken on by a researcher in Washington State called Roger Fouts. Washoe was the matriarch to three younger chimps: Loulis, Tatu, and Dar. By the time they brought in Loulis, the youngest, the humans had stopped teaching them language, so they looked to see if the chimps would transmit language through the generations, which they did.

Not only that: as soon as they had internalized the toilet taboo, with the sign “dirty” as something shameful, they started using that sign as an admonition or to express anger, like a swear word. When Washoe and the other chimps were really angry, they would smack their knuckles on the underside of their chins, so you could hear this chimp-teeth-clacking sound.

Washoe and the other chimps would sign things like “Dirty Roger!” or “Dirty Monkey!” when they were angry. The humans hadn’t taught them this! What had happened is that they had internalized that taboo, they had a sign associated with that taboo, so all of a sudden that language was incredibly powerful and was being thrown about, just like real excrement is thrown about by wild chimpanzees.

You say, “swearing is a bellwether—a foul-beaked canary in the coalmine—that tells us what our social taboos are.” Unpack that idea for us, and how it has changed over the centuries.

The example that most people will be familiar with in English-speaking countries is blasphemy. There are still parts of the U.S. that are more observant of Christianity than others but, in general, the kinds of language that would have resulted in censorship in other eras is now freely used in print and TV media. However, the “n-word,” which was once used as the title of an Agatha Christie book and even in nursery rhymes, is now taboo because there is a greater awareness that it is a painful reminder of how African-Americans suffered because of racism over the centuries. In some communities, where that usage is reclaimed, they are saying that if I use it, it immunizes me against its negative effects.

That is an example of a word that has fallen out of general conversation and literature into the realm of the unsayable. It’s quite different from the copulatory or excretory swearing in that it is so divisive. The great thing about the copulatory and excretory swearing is that they are common to the entire human race.


In the digital world, you can swear at someone without actually being face to face. Is this changing the way we curse? And what will swearing in tomorrow’s world look like?

One of the difficulties with swearing in online discourse is that there is no face-to-face repercussion, so it allows people to lash out without seeing the person that they’re speaking to as fully human. But it’s not swearing that is the problem. It’s possible to say someone is worth less as a human being based on their race, gender or sexuality using the most civil of language. For example, when Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton “a nasty woman” rather than using the c-word, most of us were able to break the code. We knew what he meant but because he hadn’t sworn it was seen as acceptable discourse.

In the future, I think that swearing will inevitably be reinvented; we’ve seen it change so much over the years. As our taboos change, that core of language that has the ability to surprise, shock or stun the emotional side of the brain will change, too. But I can’t predict where those taboos will go.

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/01/science-swearing-profanity-curse-emma-byrne/