I often speak with my clients about the close biological relationship between physical pain and psychological pain. We tend to make artificial distinctions between them, while neurologically and biochemically they have a great deal in common.
As if to prove that point, fascinating research has demonstrated that a very common physical painkiller, Acetaminophen, also known as Paracetamol and by brand names such as Panadol, Panamax and Tylenol, reduces the empathy we feel for other people’s pain.
Scientists tested how much distress and empathic concern subjects felt when faced with another’s physical or social pain, such as witnessing them being rejected or imagining them receiving painful stimuli. On placebo, results were normal. Dosed with Acetaminophen, test subjects didn’t feel quite so bad.
Describing Acetaminophen as “a potent physical painkiller that also reduces empathy for other people’s suffering”, the researchers explained that it “blunts physical and social pain by reducing activation in brain areas…thought to be related to emotional awareness and motivation.”
The most recent research by the same scientists looked specifically at Acetaminophen and positive empathy — the lift we feel when we empathise with others’ positive experiences.
And the effects were not small. The empathy shortfall was significant not only in statistical parlance, but also significant by the common meaning of the word.
Subjects in the placebo group, who took no drugs, felt almost 50% more empathy than those who had taken a standard 1000mg adult dose of Acetaminophen.
Both of these studies raise concerns about the cultural impact of the behavioural changes that could result from widespread regular use of these kinds of drugs.
It is my view that the level of psychosocial and spiritual maturity of an individual — and of whole societies — is revealed by the sophistication of their empathy. Our personal and cultural development is measured not by technology or wealth, but by wisdom, and at the core of wisdom is empathy — our insight into, and respect for, others’ perspectives, joys and pain.
The more evolved we are (unless we are a little bit sociopathic) the more effort we make to protect our fellow creatures from distress, and the harder we work to enhance their lives. In essence, the more moral we become. So chemically reduced empathy is a big deal.
Researchers Mischkowski, Crocker and Way express similar concerns. “Because the experience of positive empathy is related to prosocial behavior, our findings also raise questions about the societal impact of excessive acetaminophen consumption.”
What might be the differences between decisions made by police officers, government administrators, teachers, parents and farm workers with aching backs, and those without aching backs? There’s a PhD in there somewhere.
Conceivably, even some natural painkillers might work the same way. That’s not yet known, as research tends to focus on pharmaceuticals.
What does this mean for you?
Firstly, as always, it’s a good idea to find strategies for resolving or managing pain that involve as little pharmaceutical intervention as possible. Meanwhile, just be aware that taking Acetaminophen is likely to also affect you psychologically and, therefore, relationally. Make more conscious effort than you may feel is necessary to be supportive and sensitive in your dealings with friends, family, lovers, colleagues and other animals.
Further reading — the studies
From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
A Social Analgesic? Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Positive Empathy
Frontiers of Psychology