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Reading words hurts: the impact of pain sensitivity on people’s ratings of pain-related words*

<span class='sc'>abstract</span>

This study explores the relation between pain sensitivity and the cognitive processing of words. 130 participants evaluated the pain-relatedness of a total of 600 two-syllabic nouns, and subsequently reported on their own pain sensitivity. The results demonstrate that pain-sensitive people associate words more strongly with pain than less sensitive people. In particular, concrete nouns like ‘syringe’, ‘wound’, ‘knife’, and ‘cactus’ are considered to be more pain-related for those who are more pain-sensitive. These findings dovetail with recent studies suggesting that certain bodily characteristics influence the way people form mental representations (Casasanto, 2009). We discuss three mechanisms which could potentially account for our findings: attention and memory bias, prototype analysis, and embodied cognition. We argue that, whereas none of these three accounts can be ruled out, the embodied cognition hypothesis provides a particularly promising view to accommodate our data.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Kevin Reuter, Institute of Philosophy, Unitobler, Länggassstraße 49a, 3012 Bern, Switzerland. Tel: +41 77 266 2091; e-mail:
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We would like to thank Alexander Errenst, Marcel Gimmel, Nina Poth, and Fahime Same for their support in constructing the set of stimuli and preparing the data for analysis.

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Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1866-9808
  • EISSN: 1866-9859
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