The Popular Painkiller That Reduces Empathy (And Joy)

The Popular Painkiller That Reduces Empathy (And Joy)

Empathy is the heartbeat of healthy relationships. Without it, there is limited scope for connection and understanding – arguments heat up, intimacy cools down, small issues become big ones, and relationships break. New research has made some startling findings in relation to the popular painkiller that reduces empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand what another person might be feeling or thinking. It involves being able to see things from another person’s point of view, even when it pushes against our own. This means being able to stay curious and open to another person’s experience, while at the same time being able to tap into our own emotional bank to understand and interpret the other person’s experience.

Our own individual stories may differ vastly, but behind every story are feelings that are familiar to all of us. At some point, we have all found ourselves knee-deep in the messiest of human emotions – anguish, loss, shame, grief, fear, jealousy, disappointment. Empathy lets us tap into our own pain to understand the pain of others. New research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has found that our ability to do this may be interrupted by a common painkiller. 

The research found that when participants took acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, they were less responsive to the pain and suffering of others, compared to those who did not take a painkiller. (Acetaminophen is also known as paracetamol, the main ingredient in Panadol.)

Acetaminophen is found in more than 600 medicines. It is the most common drug ingredient in the United States and is used by about 23% of American adults each week.

The Popular Painkiller That Reduces Empathy – The Research

The research consisted of a number of separate studies. In the first study, 40 college students were given 1000mg of acetaminophen while the other half were given a placebo. The students had no idea whether they had taken the drug or the placebo.

After the participants had waited for an hour for the drug to take effect, they read about eight individual people who were each experiencing some sort of physical or emotional pain. The stories included one about somebody who had received a cut with a knife that went down to the bone, and another about a person whose father had died. The participants had to rate the pain they believed each person would be experiencing from 1 (no pain) to 5 (worst possible pain).

Those who had taken the acetaminophen rated the severity of pain as lower, compared to those who had taken the placebo.

In the second study, 72 college students took acetaminophen and 72 took the placebo. They were then exposed to four 2-second blasts of white noise from 75 decibels (about the noise of an average vacuum cleaner) to 105 decibels (the noise of a power lawn mower or a live rock concert). They then had to rate their experience of the noise on a scale of 1 (not at all unpleasant) or 10 (extremely unpleasant). They were then asked to imagine the level of pain the same noise blasts might cause someone else.

Compared to those who took the placebo, the people who took the acetaminophen rated the noise blasts as more tolerable for themselves, and more tolerable for others.

Similar results were found when participants were asked to watch an online game which involved two players actively excluding a third person from playing. Each participant had met and socialised with the three people involved (the two playing and the one excluded) briefly before the study. Those who took the acetaminophen rated the pain of the excluded person as less severe, compared to the ratings by those who took the placebo.

We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning … (T)hose who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in empathy. They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.Baldwin Way, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

The results support previous research that found the same part of the brain is activated when people experience pain, and when they imagine other people feeling the same pain. It makes sense then, that when medication is taken to reduce a person’s own experience of pain, it will also reduce the ability to feel the pain of other people.

In short bursts, reduced empathy might not seem such a big deal, but it only takes a moment for arguments to fever up.

Empathy is important. If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.–Baldwin Way.

Earlier research found that acetaminophen reduces the pain of social rejection (as in the pain of a breakup), but research since has found that that acetaminophen also flattens positive emotions, like joy. 

The researchers are now turning their attention to ibuprofen, another common pain medication, to see if there are similar results.

8 Comments

Monika

This is very interesting. I got onto your website trying yo find connection between my strange reaction to pain. I feel as if any pain, physical or mental, alters my perception of reality and affects my personality. I have rather low pain threshold and am very emotional, to the point of not being able to control my outbursts of emotions – it usually is demonstrated by tears at the slightest emotional trigger.
I’m wondering if there are any articles that you could point me towards, so I can explore this further with my psychotherapist. Thank you for your articles, they help so much!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Monika I’m pleased the articles are helpful for you. Physical pain and emotional pain activate the same parts of the brain, so what you are describing makes sense. Here is an article that explains the science of that https://www.heysigmund.com/your-body-during-a-breakup/. It is about the pain of a breakup, but it explains the concept and research around the connection between emotional pain and physical pain. Hope it helps.

Reply
Steph

I suspect I am a bit premature with this query but are there any plans afoot to study the effects amongst pregnant women?
In the UK pain relievers such as Paracetamol & Co-codamol (which contains paracetamol) are currently bottom of the list in terms of risk during pregnancy. While your article suggests that the effects on the mother are likely to be short term, what might the effects on a developing foetus be?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

That’s a really good question Steph. I’m not aware of plans to study the effects in pregnant women, but that certainly doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. Will keep an eye out!

Reply
Rick

“The researchers are now turning their attention to ibuprofen.”
What did they find?

Reply
Ann W.

I have to say I have never lacked having a feeling of empathy whenever I have taken Tylenol. But then again, I have known a few people who didn’t take Tylenol or any other drugs/painkillers either OTC or prescribed who lacked empathy. I wonder if there is something else going on; perhaps a gene that makes some people less empathetic in general that somehow converts to complete apathy whenever they take Tylenol or certain other drugs. I think this begs further research.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

The research is very new, but the researchers aren’t saying that Tylenol wipes out empathy. It reduces it, it doesn’t get rid of it. As they point out in the quote in the article, sometimes just a little tip in empathy levels might be enough to change the shape of an argument. It’s an interesting area and I expect there will be plenty more research to come.

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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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