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.

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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