Dirty Words” and Tourette Syndrome

Here’s Steven Pinker’s fascinating lecture The Stuff of Thought. He explains how the way we use language sheds light onto how we think and feel. In particular, he explains why certain kinds of words evoke such strong emotions that you can’t say them on television or over the radio.

The idea that the basal ganglia of the brain is involved in processing “swear words” also helps to explain why some people with Tourette syndrome can’t help but say bad words. As Brendan Stack and Anthony Sims have demonstrated, Tourette syndrome is often due to a pinched nerve in the face, either in the jaw (temporomandibular joint, TMJ) or in the sinuses.

If you watch people with Tourette syndrome, you’ll see that the neurologic signs that make up Tourette syndrome all represent some attempt to remove an unpleasant stimulus: eye-blinking, throat-clearing, twitching, and gestures with the hands. Likewise, the swear words are an attempt to deal with the unpleasant stimulus. It’s the brain’s way of telling whatever is causing the problem to “piss off!”

Removing the unpleasant stimulus, often simply by using a mouthpiece to realign the jaw, can relieve all of the signs of Tourette syndrome, often instantaneously. This kind of treatment can also cure many mysterious cases of pain and movement disorder that have been mistaken for psychosomatic problems.

Photo by jasleen_kaur

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