Sticks and Stones: Sensitivity to physical pain can make words “hurt” more

By Angie Wang [original research by Reuter, Werning, Kuchinke, & Cosentino, 2016]



Dental nerve.

If you’re like me, you probably winced as you read those words–or at least reading them made you somewhat uncomfortable. Or maybe you’re that one person who just loves words like these because of how they make other people shudder. Two kinds of people, they say.

But where does the difference lie? In a 2016 study, researchers found that people who are more sensitive to pain are more likely to associate words with greater amounts of pain than people who are less sensitive to pain.

Participants were asked “How strongly do you associate a [word] with pain?” which they rated on a 5-point scale. These words came from a list of 600 nouns, some associated with pain (e.g. knife, scar, epidemic), and others not pain-related (e.g. eagle, pendulum, wrinkle) to serve as a control. For the pain-related words, some were concrete nouns (e.g. hammer, snake) and others were abstract nouns that could refer to a state of affairs involving pain (e.g. emergency, birth). These words were presented in surveys.

After evaluating the words, participants self-reported their pain sensitivity. (Note: While the authors of the paper claim that self-assessment of pain sensitivity is valid, another study has shown otherwise). The participants were then divided into three groups: low, moderate, and high pain sensitivity. The researchers calculated the average pain-ratings for each word, and compared these values among the three groups. They found statistically significant differences between the high and moderate group, and between the high and low group. On average, people with high pain sensitivity rated the pain words like “thorn” as being more painful, while people with low pain sensitivity rated them as less painful. There was only a difference between groups for pain-related words like “fever,” not the non-pain words like “spring” which had served as a control. Finally, the study found a significant influence of pain sensitivity on word ratings for concrete words, but not abstract words.


If individuals indeed differ in their processing of pain-related words, how do we explain these differences?

According to the embodied account, the processing of language involves visual, motor, and emotional areas of the brain corresponding to the contents being comprehended. One study has shown that when we process pain-related words, brain areas that are involved when we actually experience pain are activated. For example, as you understand the meaning of the word “needle,” visual and emotional areas of the brain involved in interactions with needles may be activated. Essentially, bodily experiences and multiple areas of the brain come together and affect the way that we comprehend (and subsequently rate) the “painfulness” of words.


The embodied account also explains the differences between the pain-ratings of concrete and abstract words. Concrete concepts are processed in brain regions that process action, perception, and emotion (in addition to language), whereas abstract concepts are primarily processed in brain areas devoted to language. We would expect there to be a relationship between pain sensitivity and the processing of concrete pain words because they involve the same brain regions, and indeed, there was a correlation.

Furthermore, according to the principle of body specificity, individual differences in the way people experience painful stimuli leads to differences in the way they construct concepts and word meanings associated with pain. This means that people show differences in the degree to which they are “hurt by words,” based on their interactions with their physical environment.

In a basic sense: differences in pain sensitivity → differences in the activation of brain areas (when we experience pain and when we read pain words) → different processing of pain-related words.

So do we blame our brains for making us “feel” and judge words a certain way? Maybe. Or perhaps it simply boils down to our different imaginations. While it’s not surprising that we each have different levels of pain sensitivity, it is the relationship between this sensitivity and the processing of words that is intriguing. And while it’s not everyday that we give 5-point ratings to pain-related words, these ratings do demonstrate how physical pain and language–two seemingly separate spheres–are brought together.

Featured Image: Disgust. By Christopher Brown. CC