Syringe: How much pain do you feel when you read the word syringe?

By Diana G De La Pena [original research by Reuter, Werning, Kuchinke, & Cosentino, 2016]

Has it ever happened to you that you see someone cut themselves or get hurt and you somehow ‘feel’ the pain they are going through?

One early Friday morning, I was reading the newspaper and the front-page headline talked about a woman who had slipped, cracked the ice of a lake, and fallen into ice cold water. Shortly after reading the story and out of nowhere, my body started feeling achy, shivery, and very cold as if it had been the one who had fallen into the lake too! I have never fallen into a lake of ice cold water, I certainly avoid anything to do with cold weather. Can this be possible, my body reacting to the simple words printed in this newspaper!?

Well, researchers used participants from Rhur University Bochum to try and answer this question. Their aim is to explain whether individual differences in pain sensitivity influence the cognitive processing of words measured via people’s ratings of pain-relatedness to a given word. They are interested to see if pain sensitivity is any different when processing abstract nouns versus concrete nouns.

I briefly present the different frameworks, different type of words used, and the end results discussed in the article, that attempt to explain the individual’s differences of language processing when dealing with pain-related/emotion-related stimuli.


  • Cognitive bias – individuals that have specific inclinations, demonstrate a specific cognitive bias towards stimuli that is closely related to their preferences.
  • Prototype Analysis – this is where conceptual representations are encoded in a specific manner and the distinct features of these conceptual representations tend to be more central than other features.
  • If you have an object with a sharp tip (knife), our representation of this objects gets encoded in a specific way and the feature of the knife (sharp tip) becomes the focus compared to the rest of the features of the knife.
  • Embodied Cognition – the linguistic processing involving our perceptual, motoric, and emotional brain regions that generates individual comprehension of words.


  1. Results form 130 participant were used.
  2. Before study began, asked to rate their self-assessments on pain sensitivity (yes, not so much, definitely not, and I do not know)
    Asked to report how frequently they experience pain (very rarely, now and then, quite often, chronic pain)
  3. Assembled 600 German pain words all subdivided into different categories.

Pain valence words

  • Nouns (syringe, thorn, hail, hammer, crutch, tank, snake) refer to causing pain when in contact.
  • Nouns (appendix, pus, neck, bone, scar) refer to our body parts that inflicts having pain
  • Abstract nouns (birth, emergency, epidemic, torture) refer to states that involve pain

Positive valence words

  • Syllabic nouns (eagle, spring, sapphire)

Negative valence words

  • Non-pain (wrinkle, race, spy)

Neutral valence words

  • (herring, magnifying glass, pendulum)
  1. Individuals randomly presented with list of words then they were prompted to rate their association of the words to physical pain on a scale (1 = not at all, 2 = slightly, 3 = moderate, 4 = strongly, 5 = very strongly)


Individuals who self-rated as being more pain-sensitive demonstrated higher association of pain on the pain valence words compared to the individuals that self-reported as less pain sensitive.

Individual differences in pain sensitivity is associated with stronger activating of our pain matrix (Areas such as somatosensory cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex that activate when experiencing\ pain).

It was concluded that framework number three, embodied cognition, was the best way to explain the results from the study. The differences between processing abstract and concrete words are much better explained through our embodied cognition frame of reference.

Now, going back to my little experience from the beginning, I could try to explain my reaction on the woman who fell into ice cold water, in that my pain sensitivity related to seeing the words ice cold water on body was definitely associated with high pain sensitivity. I do rate myself as a very high pain-sensitive individual.


In the end, we see that individual differences in pain sensitivity influence the cognitive processing of words measured via self-ratings of pain-relatedness to a given word.


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

Language learning and brain connectivity

By Ana Palma [original research by Chai, Berken, Barbeau, Soles, Callahan, Chen, & Klein, 2016]

Learning a second language is a task that comes more easily to some than others. Some may struggle to read and write while others may have a hard time speaking the new language. Whether it was learned in a classroom, online, or in an immersive environment, there is definitely variability among second language learners that makes the learning process different for each person. What accounts for these individual differences in learning a new language?

This is the question that was asked in a study done at McGill University, where the goal was to investigate the relationship between specific brain parts and the ability to learn a second language. Participants completed 12 weeks of intensive French immersion training and researchers found large individual differences in how much the native English-speaking participants improved their French skills.

The training was done in a classroom setting with instruction in French, conversation partners, and frequent contact with native speakers in Montreal, Quebec. If you’re trying to learn a second language quickly, this is definitely the kind of immersive environment you want. Participants were tested both before and after the training course for their language proficiency in English and French. Instead of using a traditional grading system, participants were assessed using spontaneous speech samples (having them talk about a day at the park or any random topic) and reading samples in both English and French before and after the course.

As predicted, some participants were more successful than others in learning a second language. Experimenters found that differences in brain connectivity (or brain anatomy) played a big factor. Using resting-state fMRI (a technique that measures brain activity while you are awake, but not doing a task), experimenters scanned the brains of the native English speakers before and after the French immersion course. By analyzing the brain in a resting state, they discovered that differences in improvement of reading and speaking were related to pre-existing differences in brain connectivity.

Image: Center for Brain Health UT Dallas

Reading and speaking depended on different regions of the brain. Participants who showed greater improvement in their French speaking skills showed stronger connectivity in the medial inferior frontal gyrus. Participants who showed stronger reading skills had stronger connectivity between the visual word form area and a cluster in the left mid-superior temporal gyrus. Reading and speaking depended on different functional connections, but both skills followed the same principal: greater connectivity between specific areas of the brain before training was associated with better proficiency when learning a second language.

These results suggest that our ability to learn a second language can be predicted by the connectivity in language related regions of the brain. This is very significant for scientists and educators as they could potentially use these findings to determine who will be more successful in learning a second language. Or perhaps, neuroscientists could find a way to facilitate these connections, making the learning process smoother.

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