Does pain hurt more in Spanish? The neurobiology of pain among Spanish–English bilingual adults

Morgan Gianola, Maria M. Llabre, Elizabeth A. Reynolds Losin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We previously found Spanish-English bilingual adults reported higher pain intensity when exposed to painful heat in the language of their stronger cultural orientation. Here, we elucidate brain systems involved in language-driven alterations in pain responses. During separate English- and Spanish-speaking fMRI scanning runs, 39 (21 female) bilingual adults rated painful heat intermixed between culturally evocative images and completed sentence reading tasks. Surveys of cultural identity and language use measured relative preference for US-American vs Hispanic culture (cultural orientation). Participants produced higher intensity ratings in Spanish compared to English. Group-level whole-brain differences in pain-evoked activity between languages emerged in somatosensory, cingulate, precuneus and cerebellar cortex. Regions of interest associated with semantic, attention and somatosensory processing showed higher average pain-evoked responses in participants’ culturally preferred language, as did expression of a multivariate pain-predictive pattern. Follow-up moderated mediation analyses showed somatosensory activity mediated language effects on pain intensity, particularly for Hispanic oriented participants. These findings relate to distinct (‘meddler’, ‘spotlight’ and ‘inducer’) hypotheses about the nature of language effects on perception and cognition. Knowledge of language influences on pain could improve efficacy of culturally sensitive treatment approaches across the diversity of Hispanic adults to mitigate documented health disparities in this population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbernsad074
JournalSocial cognitive and affective neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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