We've all taken painkillers at one time or another, whether we wanted to get rid of a nasty headache, soothe our muscles after a strenuous workout, or ease our sore throat during a seemingly endless cold — and indeed, many of us have used Tylenol to do all three. But the active drug in this painkiller, scientifically referred to as acetaminophen, may not come without a cost: According to new research acetaminophen may lessen our emotional sensitivity. While this might sound like a good deal when it comes to pain, the bad news is that it can also take away our sensitivity to pleasure.
In the experiment that prompted these findings, published in Psychological Science, 82 study participants took either acetaminophen or a placebo pill. The patients waited half an hour for their medicine to start to take effect, after which they were shown 40 photos that were selected on their basis for conjuring up emotional responses. The photographs depicted a diverse range of emotions, from cute kittens meant to evoke happiness, to underfed children meant to evoke sadness. After viewing them, the study participants had to rate each picture on a scale that ranged from positive to negative; then, after viewing the images again, they were prompted to rate on a scale the level of emotional intensity each picture evoked.
How the answers differed among those who had taken acetaminophen and those who'd been given a placebo is where it gets interesting. Those who were given the placebo pill rated the positive and negative photos as having made them feel more intense, meaning that the painkiller users didn't feel as much as the others. So, acetaminophen might not only be killing your pain, but also your ability to feel.
This effect isn't without its potential uses, though. Said lead author Geoffrey Durso, "This means that using Tylenol or similar products might have broader consequences than previously thought.... Rather than just being a pain reliever, acetaminophen can be seen as an all-purpose emotion reliever." In fact, given that other recent research revealed that acetaminophen isn't all that effective for alleviating general aches and pains, maybe this emotion-dulling quality might lead us to start using the drug in different ways. In the future, if you're going through a breakup or are feeling blue about your work prospects, perhaps doctors will start suggesting you take some Tylenol or another acetaminophen-based over-the-counter drug.
But, what does this mean in terms of broader social implications? Many people take Tylenol and mild painkillers regularly, so could we be living in a culture that is less emotional in general as a result? Since this study was just recently released, further research is definitely going to be warranted to answer these questions.
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