Verbal insults hit our brains like a ‘mini slap in the face’

UTRECHT, Netherlands — Hearing an insult feels like a “mini slap in the face” regardless of the comment’s context, according to a study of brain scans. Researchers have found that even in a neutral setting with no context, like a lab, hearing or reading negative comments about yourself or others does emotional damage to the brain.

Study authors in the Netherlands wanted to examine the unique connection between emotion and language. They studied 79 women using electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance recordings to measure how the brain responds to three different kinds of speech — insults, compliments, and neutral facts.

The researchers note that humans are highly social creatures who often rely on interpersonal relationships to survive and thrive. Their results show words really can hurt.

“The exact way in which words can deliver their offensive, emotionally negative payload at the moment these words are being read or heard is not yet well-understood,” says corresponding author Dr. Marijn Struiksma from Utrecht University in a media release.

Since insults pose “a threat” to someone’s reputation and their sense of “self,” researchers say they provide a unique opportunity to study the language-emotion dynamic.

“Understanding what an insulting expression does to people as it unfolds, and why, is of considerable importance to psycholinguists interested in how language moves people, but also to others who wish to understand the details of social behavior,” Struiksma adds.

What do insults do to the brain?

“We assume that verbal insults trigger a cascade of rapidly consecutive or overlapping processing effects, and that different parts of that cascade might be differently affected by repetition, with some of them rapidly wearing off, and others remaining strongly responsive for a long time,” Struiksma explains.

In their experiment, researchers had the 79 participants read insults (for example, “Linda is horrible”), compliments (“Linda is impressive”), and factually correct descriptive statements (“Linda is Dutch”).

Half of the statements used the reader’s name — meaning the participant was reading insults about themselves. The other half used another person’s name. The experiment did not involve any other people handing out the compliments or insults. Instead, researchers told each woman that the comments were made by three random (fictional) men.

However, even in a lab setting with no real human interactions, the study finds verbal insults still “get at you” no matter who the insult targets. Even after repeating the exercise, the insults continue to “slap” people.

Specifically, EEG scans show that an insult affects the P2 amplitude. This is a waveform component of the event-related potential (ERP) which scientists measure in the scalp.

“Our study shows that in a psycholinguistic laboratory experiment without real interaction between speakers, insults deliver lexical ‘mini slaps in the face’, such that the strongly negative evaluative words involved that a participant reads, automatically grab attention during lexical retrieval, regardless of how often that retrieval occurs,” Struiksma concludes.

The team adds that insults immediately capture the brain’s attention, and the emotional meaning of these comments stick in our long-term memory. Conversely, compliments triggered a weaker P2 effect, proving that there’s a negativity bias when it comes to a person’s attention during social interactions.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Communication.

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