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.