PELLA — How many taboo words can you list in four minutes? It turns out, that number depends on which part of your brain is most active, says Central College senior Jordan Bryne. A psychology major from Minburn, she recently won a grant to support her original research on the relationship of taboo language to the right hemisphere.


Scientists have long observed that language is primarily processed in the left side of the brain, while the right brain is essential for other areas of thought, including emotion. But what if language is emotionally charged? That’s what Bryne began investigating in an advanced research course at Central - and the study she’s expanding this summer with assistant professor of psychology Ashley Scolaro.


“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made, being a psychology major at Central,” Bryne says. “I’ve never learned more in my life.”


Bryne predicted it is more difficult for an individual to process taboo language if the right hemisphere is inhibited, proving its vital role in the task. According to her study’s design, each participant receives brain stimulation to excite or inhibit the right and left hemispheres, then completes several different tasks measuring their ability to process taboo language.


While people may be familiar with brain research that shows active areas of the brain through scans, Scolaro says this technique offers many other possibilities. Bryne and other researchers can use stimulation technology to increase or decrease the activity in a certain area, then study how that may subtly influence participants’ behavior. Some scientists use this relatively new technique for research, while others use it clinically to treat depression, migraines and other disorders


Bryne says she hopes to eventually become a professor of neuroscience and teach about fascinating brain processes. She presented her work at Central’s Undergraduate Research Symposium last year. Now she hopes to present at an international psychology conference this fall as well.


It’s exciting that Central College students can work with recently developed brain stimulation technology, Scolaro says. “One of my students got into grad school partly based on that experience - and was invited to continue doing brain research with this technology. This is really going to help Jordan move forward in the field of neuroscience.”


Some of this research might surprise you - would you imagine taboo words could cause your brain to switch sides?


True or false? Women react more strongly to taboo language than men.


False. Bryne’s study shows no difference in the degree to which men and women are shocked by taboo language. It’s important for psychology to provide a deeper look into how people think, she says, and many people are surprised that this assumption is false.


True or false? People perceive less-frequently used taboo words as more shocking or offensive.


True. In Bryne’s research, individuals show a high level of emotional thought when confronted with infrequently used taboos. And which words are those? The most taboo words according to a person’s brain, Bryne explains, reflect the most offensive taboos of that person’s society. In her research, taboo words related to race and sexual behavior provoke the most intensely emotional brain process. It’s clear the way we speak - and think - reflects our lives, Bryne says.


True or false? It’s widely known that different types of language are processed differently.


False. Apart from Bryne’s work, scientists have conducted almost no research on types of language that the brain processes differently. It’s a field of research wide open for exploration - and an exciting time to develop brand-new ideas in her study, Bryne says.