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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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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

D Casasanto . (2011). Different bodies, different minds: the body-specificity of language and thought. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(6), 378383.

J. Eck , M. Richter , T. Straube , W. Miltner , & T Weiss . (2011). Affective brain regions are activated during the processing of pain-related words in migraine patients. Pain, 152(5), 11041113.

R. Edwards , & R Fillingim . (2007). Self-reported pain sensitivity: lack of correlation with pain threshold and tolerance. European Journal of Pain, 11(5), 594598.

R. M. Willems , I. Toni , P. Hagoort , & D Casasanto . (2009). Body-specific motor imagery of hand actions: neural evidence from right- and left-handers. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 3(39), 19.

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Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1866-9808
  • EISSN: 1866-9859
  • URL: /core/journals/language-and-cognition
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