Taking Tylenol Can Dull Your Ability to Care About Others, Research Reveals
Tylenol doesn’t just dull your perception of physical pain, it also dulls your ability to relate to the physical and emotional pain of others. In other words, Tylenol affects your ability to show empathy, according to a pair of studies conducted by researchers from Ohio State University and published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
The studies were conducted using the active ingredient in Tylenol, a chemical known as acetaminophen or paracetamol.
“These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen,” researcher Dominik Mischkowski said.
“Acetaminophen can reduce empathy as well as serve as a painkiller.”
Less aware of EVERYONE’S pain
Acetaminophen is the most commonly taken drug in the United States, according to the industry group Consumer Healthcare Products Association. In any given week, about 52 million adults – 23 percent of the adult population – take one or more of the 600 products containing the drug.
Yet the mechanisms by which Tylenol dulls pain remain poorly understood.
In the first new study, researchers assigned 80 college students to drink a liquid that either did or did not contain 1,000 mg of acetaminophen. They were not told which group they were in. An hour later, the participants read eight short vignettes involving someone suffering emotional or physical pain, such as the death of a father or a knife cut down to the bone. The participants then rated the pain of participants, along with their emotional feelings of being pained, hurt or wounded, on a scale of 1 to 5.
Participants who had taken acetaminophen rated both the emotional and physical pain in the stories as significantly lower than those in the placebo group.
Prior research has shown that the same regions of the brain light up when experiencing pain and when imagining that of others.
Tylenol blunts emotions, moral reasoning
The followup study had a similar setup, involving 114 college students. First, the participants were exposed to two seconds of a white noise blast ranging from 75 to 105 decibels (100 decibels is about as loud as a motorcycle engine, and loud enough to cause hearing damage with long exposure). They rated the unpleasantness of the sound on a scale of 1 to 10. They were then asked to rate how unpleasant another person would likely find the noise.
Participants in the acetaminophen group answered both questions with lower ratings than people in the placebo group.
“Acetaminophen reduced the pain they felt, but it also reduced their empathy for others who were experiencing the same noise blasts,” Mischkowski said.
The participants were then brought into the same room to socialize briefly with each other, so that they were no longer total strangers. They were then separated again and, individually, watched an online game supposedly involving three of the people they had just met (this was not true). In the faked game, two people ganged up on and excluded the third player.
The participants were asked to rate how much pain and hurt feelings each player in the game had experienced. Again, the participants in the acetaminophen group rated the pain of the excluded player as significantly lower than those in the placebo group did.
“We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning,” senior author Baldwin Way said.
“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.”
The study is only the latest to show that Tylenol has disturbing effects on emotion and information processing. Prior research by the same team showed that acetaminophen also reduced people’s ability to feel positive emotions. Other studies have shown that acetaminophen makes people’s emotional reactions more neutral in general, that it blunts the sense of indignation that underlies moral judgment, and that it reduces people’s ability to detect their own cognitive errors.
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