Painkiller or Soul-Killer? The Troubling Connection Between Tylenol and Decreased Empathy

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Popping a Tylenol for physical pain has become second nature for many - but groundbreaking research suggests this common painkiller may also be numbing our emotional capacity for caring, with potentially profound social consequences.

For many, reaching for a Tylenol to relieve a headache or sore muscles has become almost automatic. But groundbreaking research suggests that while this popular over-the-counter drug may effectively dull physical pain, it could also be numbing users' ability to empathize with others on an emotional level - a side effect with deeply troubling societal implications.

A study published last month in Frontiers of Psychology adds to the growing body of evidence that acetaminophen (the generic name for Tylenol) reduces empathy for others' suffering.1 Researchers at Ohio State University conducted a double-blind, randomized trial in which 114 college students received either 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen or a placebo. One hour later, participants read scenarios depicting the experiences of various protagonists.

The results were striking: those who had taken acetaminophen reported significantly lower empathic concern and personal distress in response to the characters' misfortunes compared to the placebo group.1 Notably, even positive empathy was dampened, with the acetaminophen users experiencing less vicarious joy for the protagonists' uplifting experiences.1 As the authors note, these muted emotional reactions raise concern given the role of empathy in fostering compassion, connection, and prosocial behavior.1

This was not the first study to highlight acetaminophen's psychosocial side effects. A seminal 2016 paper by some of the same Ohio State researchers first revealed that a typical dose of the drug blunted participants' empathy for others' pain, as measured by brain activity and subjective ratings.2 The authors sounded an early alarm:

"Because empathy regulates prosocial and antisocial behavior, these drug-induced reductions in empathy raise concerns about the broader social side effects of acetaminophen, which is taken by almost a quarter of adults in the United States each week."2

Since then, evidence of acetaminophen's psychological risks has only mounted. A 2019 study by the Ohio State team showed that the drug inhibited users' ability to share in others' positive experiences, suggesting effects on empathy beyond reactions to physical pain alone.3 Once again, the researchers warned about potential consequences, as "taking pleasure from the good fortune of others fosters interpersonal connection, trust, and - ultimately - prosocial behavior."3

Other unsettling behavioral changes have also surfaced. Just last year, Baldwin Way, an Ohio State psychology professor who co-authored the empathy studies, published findings that acetaminophen made participants more willing to take risks.4 Compared to a placebo group, those given 1,000mg of the drug not only rated hypothetical activities like skydiving and unsafe sex as less risky, but also took more risks in a computerized task to earn rewards.4

Coupled with the empathy deficits, these disinhibiting effects paint a worrisome picture. As Way commented, considering that a quarter of American adults take acetaminophen each week, "even slight changes in risk-taking behavior could have important effects on society."4 Other research has linked greater risk-taking on this type of simulated task with increased likelihood of real-world risky behaviors like stealing, substance use, and reckless driving.5

So how exactly does acetaminophen exert these effects on the mind? The answer likely lies in the brain regions it targets. Neuroimaging studies show that the drug reduces activity in areas like the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex,6,7 which are involved in processing both physical and social pain, as well as positive empathy.1 By tamping down these key emotional centers, acetaminophen may provide physical relief at the cost of emotional blunting.

The picture that emerges is one of a medication that, while highly effective at treating aches and pains, may also numb the emotional capacities that make us fully human. As the Ohio State researchers argue, acetaminophen's "broader psychological effects...may have profound social implications that are only now beginning to be understood."1

These discoveries underscore the importance of holistic approaches to pain management that address root causes rather than simply masking symptoms. They also highlight the risks of viewing any drug, even familiar over-the-counter remedies, as completely benign. With acetaminophen in particular, the ease of access and assumption of safety8 belie the major questions that remain about long-term psychological impacts, especially at a societal level.

As more and more evidence links this common painkiller to deficits in quintessentially human traits like empathy, it serves as a clarion call to reevaluate the full spectrum of effects - both intended and unintended - of one of the most widely consumed drugs on the planet. The health of our bodies and our social fabric may very well depend on it.

For more information on Tylenol's broad spectrum toxicity, visit our database on the subject here.

For natural ways to manage pain, visit our database on the subject here.

Interested in getting support in identifying the root causes of your pain, and understanding how to use food as your medicine? Get a copy of Sayer Ji's international best-seller REGENERATE: Unlocking Your Body's Radical Resilience through the New Biology here and take his popular masterclass REGENERATE YOURSELF here. (please add links)


References

1. Dominik Mischkowski, Jennifer Crocker, and Baldwin M. Way, "A Social Analgesic? Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Positive Empathy," Frontiers in Psychology 10 (April 12, 2019), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00538.

2. Dominik Mischkowski, Jennifer Crocker, and Baldwin M. Way, "From Painkiller to Empathy Killer: Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Empathy for Pain," Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 11, no. 9 (September 2016): 1345-53, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw057.

3. Dominik Mischkowski et al., "A Social Analgesic? Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Positive Empathy," Frontiers in Psychology 10 (April 12, 2019), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00538.

4. Alexis Keaveney et al., "Effects of Acetaminophen on Risk Taking," Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 15, no. 7 (July 2020): 725-32, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsaa108.

5. Alexis Keaveney et al., "Effects of Acetaminophen on Risk Taking," Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 15, no. 7 (July 2020): 725-32, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsaa108.

6. C. Nathan Dewall et al., "Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain: Behavioral and Neural Evidence," Psychological Science 21, no. 7 (2010): 931-37, https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797610374741.

7. Gery Pickering et al., "Analgesic Effect of Acetaminophen in Humans: First Evidence of a Central Serotonergic Mechanism," Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics 97, no. 4 (April 2015): 371-78, https://doi.org/10.1002/cpt.37.

8. Philippe T. Michelier et al., "Is Paracetamol (Acetaminophen) Safe?," European Journal of Hospital Pharmacy 27, no. 6 (November 1, 2020): e2-3, https://doi.org/10.1136/ejhpharm-2020-002495.

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