Words Really Can Hurt


Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words … well, the old adage might need a revision. New research shows that the brain's pain matrix gets activated by pain-related words.

When people hear or read words such as "plaguing," "tormenting" and "grueling," the section of the brain that retains memories of painful experiences is triggered.

Psychologists from Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in Germany had 16 subjects read pain-related words while imagining situations that corresponded to each word. They were then asked to repeat the exercise, but were distracted by a brain-teaser as they read the words. During the experiments, participants had their brains scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

"There was an activation in the pain matrix to pain words," Dr. Thomas Weiss told LiveScience.

The pain matrix is the brain's storage place for past memories of painful experiences, acting as a reminder to avoid painful situations in the future. The results held in both experiments, regardless of whether the participants were distracted.

"In both cases, we could observe a clear activation of the pain matrix in the brain by pain-associated words," said study author Maria Richter.

The study size was small, but that's typical of brain-imaging research.

The psychologists noted that negative words that are not pain-related, such as "disgusting," "terrifying" and "horrible," did not activate those brain regions. Reading neutral and positive words also did not produce activity patterns comparable to the pain-related words.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.