Painkillers like paracetamol can reduce your empathy for others by numbing pain and emotions, says study
The drug is designed to target these regions to reduce physical pain. But they inadvertently affect experiences of emotions and social pain too. This is because physical pain and emotions are controlled by the same regions in the brain, says the study
Taking painkillers like paracetamol might turn you into a person with less empathy for others — albeit temporarily, according to a study.
These drugs do so by partly numbing certain regions of the brain associated with emotional awareness and motivation. The drug is designed to target these regions to reduce physical pain.
But they inadvertently affect experiences of emotions and social pain too. This is because physical pain and emotions are controlled by the same regions in the brain, says the study.
This does not mean one should not be reaching for painkillers in times of need: the effects on empathy are transient and they do not change human personalities, say researchers from Ohio University.
"We take a lot of stuff that is not necessarily always good in every circumstance. I always use the example of alcohol, because it's also a painkiller, like paracetamol. We take it because we feel that it has a benefit for us, and it's OK as long as you take it in the right circumstances and you don't consume too much," Dr Dominik Mischkowski, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Ohio University and co-author of the study told BBC.
But staying informed on these effects can go a long way. "Just like we should be aware that you shouldn't get in front of the wheel if you're under the influence of alcohol, you don't want to take paracetamol and then put yourself into a situation that requires you to be emotionally responsive – like having a serious conversation with a partner or co-worker,” says Mischkowski.
This is important because painkillers are widely-used all over the world. The US alone buys up 49,000 tonnes of paracetamol every year — equivalent to about 298 paracetamol tablets per person. What is more, paracetamol is one of the drugs on the World Health Organisation's list of essential drugs.
Besides, positive empathy has a few benefits. Earlier research has shown that people who understand and share other people’s pleasurable experiences, have better psychological health, interpersonal trust, intimacy, and a prosocial orientation.
Previous research has directly or indirectly suggested a role of physical pain in the experience of empathy for pain. Researchers had a hunch on the drug's emotional effects after looking at neuroimaging studies. The imaging results show that the same areas of our brain become active during experiences of “positive empathy” and pain.
To confirm this hunch, Mischkowski and his colleagues designed an experiment and recruited participants: some people were assigned to receive 1,000 mg of the painkiller while others received an empty pill or placebo.
The team tested how these participants fared in tests conducting empathy by making them read written scenarios about different protagonists having uplifting, positive experiences.
"As predicted, acetaminophen reduced positive empathy. When reading scenarios about various protagonists having pleasurable experiences, participants under the influence of acetaminophen experienced less empathic effect compared to participants who had consumed a psychologically inert placebo," write the authors in their study.
The authors of the study point out that there is currently no research highlighting the relationship between the use of painkillers and reduced prosocial behavior in the US. They write, "This research gap needs filling."
The study has been published in Frontiers in Psychology.