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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For our children, we start building the foundations for adolescence in their earliest years - the relationship we’ll have with them, who they are going to be, how they are going to be. One of the things we’ll want to build is their capacity to know their own minds and be brave enough to use it. This isn’t easy, even for adults, so the more practice we give them, the more they’ll be able to access their strong, brave, beautiful minds when they need to - when we aren’t there.

This means letting them have a say when we can, asking their opinions, and letting them disagree.

When kids and teens argue, they’re communicating. We need to listen, but the need won’t always be obvious. When littles argue because it’s spaghetti for dinner and ‘I hate spaghetti so much’ (even though last week and the 5 years before last week, spaghetti was their favourite), they might be expressing a need for sleep, power and influence, or independence. All are valid. When your teen argues because they want to do something you’ve said no to, the need might be to preserve their felt sense of inclusion with their tribe, or independence from you. Again, all valid. 

Of course, a valid need doesn’t mean it will always be met. Sometimes our needs might need to take priority to theirs, such as our need to keep them safe, or for them to learn that they can still be okay if everything doesn’t go their way, or that sometimes people will have conflicting needs that need to take priority. What’s important is letting them know we hear them and we get it.

It’s going to take time for kids to learn how to argue and express themselves respectfully. In the meantime, the words might be clumsy, loud, angry. This is when we need to hold on to ourselves, meet them where they are, let them know we hear them, and step into our leadership presence. We might give them what they need because it makes sense and because there isn’t enough reason not to. Sometimes, after giving them space to be heard we’ll need to stand our ground. Other times we might solve the problem collaboratively: This is what you want. This is what I want. Let’s talk about how we can we both get what we need.♥️
Anxiety will always tilt our focus to the risks, often at the expense of the very real rewards. It does this to keep us safe. We’re more likely to run into trouble if we miss the potential risks than if we miss the potential gains. 

This means that anxiety will swell just as much in reaction to a real life-threat, as it will to the things that might cause heartache (feels awful, but not life-threatening), but which will more likely come with great rewards. Wholehearted living means actively shifting our awareness to what we have to gain by taking a safe risk. 

Sometimes staying safe will be the exactly right thing to do, but sometimes we need to fight for that important or meaningful thing by hushing the noise of anxiety and moving bravely forward. 

When children or teens are on the edge of brave, but anxiety is pushing them back, ask, ‘But what would it be like if you could?’ ♥️

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Except I don’t do hungry me or tired me or intolerant me, as, you know … intolerably. Most of the time. Sometimes.
Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’

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