This was originally published on Liberal America on June 6, 2016.
First off, empathy is the ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand their feelings. This is different from sympathy, which is feeling pity or sadness over someone else’s bad situations. Empathy is a deeper feeling because it usually involves a deeper understanding of someone’s situation.
A new study has found that a popular pain-killer, used in brands such as Tylenol, causes a loss of empathy in many people: Acetaminophen.
Acetaminophen is found in over 600 medications. Dr. Dominik Mischkowski, one of the original authors of the study, had this to say about it:
“These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen. Acetaminophen can reduce empathy as well as serve as a painkiller.”
Co-author, Dr. Baldwin Way, said empathy is important because:
“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 research was conducted with 80 college students. Half were given a 1,000mg dose of acetaminophen; the other half were given a placebo.
The researchers then read the participants some stories of people who had been hurt and asked them to rate the pain they felt. The people that had taken acetaminophen rated lower pain scores.
They waited an hour for the drug to take effect before giving the participants these stories. One story followed someone who experienced a knife wound that went down to the bone. Another story had a person dealing with the loss of a parent.
In another study, the participants were asked to listen to white noise at varying decibels. They were asked to rate how unpleasant the white noise was. The people on acetaminophen said it wasn’t that bad, so we know the drug kills the pain.
However, they were also asked how bad the white noise would be for someone else, and they said it wouldn’t be that bad for other people. There is the loss of empathy showing up again.
The scientists are not entirely sure what causes it. In a 2004 study, it was proven that the same part of the brain that registers pain is also activated when picturing someone else in pain.
Therefore, if acetaminophen kills pain in that part of the brain, then feelings for other people’s pain would also be affected.