Sunday, July 11, 2010

Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain: Behavioral and Neural Evidence

Bodhipaksa posted this brief piece from the Boston Globe this morning, a new research finding the suggests Tylenol reduced emotional pain in college students. My comment is below the abstract.

Everyone has experienced pain and sickness at some point in their lives. For such physical ailments, one of the first things we do--or are instructed to do by medical providers--is take a pain reliever, like acetaminophen (a.k.a., Tylenol). But physical pain isn’t the only kind of pain. Our feelings can also be hurt. So researchers wondered whether acetaminophen, which acts on the central nervous system, could blunt social pain, too. In one experiment, healthy college students were randomly assigned to take acetaminophen or a placebo twice a day for three weeks. Those who took acetaminophen reported experiencing significantly fewer hurt feelings. In a second experiment, another set of healthy college students was randomly assigned to take acetaminophen or a placebo twice a day for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, the students were scanned in an MRI machine while playing a virtual ball-tossing game with two other players. After a while, the other players stopped tossing the ball to the subject. Those who had taken the acetaminophen exhibited significantly less neural activity in areas of the brain previously associated with experiencing social and physical pain.

DeWall, N. et al., ”Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain: Behavioral and Neural Evidence,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).
This is a slightly edited version of the comment I left at bodhi tree swaying (the name of Bodhipaksa's site).

There is a great deal of confusion around this topic because emotions and feelings are generally used interchangeably, which is an error from the neuroscience perspective.

According to Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens), perhaps the leading neuroscientist in this realm, a feeling is something that happens in the body, but an emotion is how the brain interprets that feeling based on memory, associations with previous feelings, cognitive interpretations, and the environmental context. We have feelings, we create emotions.

In the context of the article above, this approach helps us make sense of the findings. Emotional pain, say from a broken relationship, is more than likely connected to feelings in the body (stomach upset, muscle pain, lethargy – all of which are similar to withdrawal symptoms from drug use, which is actually a useful comparison since “love” generates changes in brain chemistry not unlike drug use). If the pain killer can resolve some of the physical complaints (which we seldom identify with the emotions we experience), then it makes sense that the emotional pain would also subside a bit.

The bottom-line issue here (and the foundation of body-based therapies) is that most people are totally divorced from their bodies.

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teeny yogini said...

intriguing research and astute response! Meditating on bodily sensations has completely changed my own personal perception of emotional pain.

Still, lest anyone out there feel tempted to use acetaminophen as an OTC anti-depressant, I think it's a good idea to point out that long-term acetaminophen use has been associated with fatal liver damage.

william harryman said...

YES! I always tell my clients to avoid acetaminophen like the plague - that stuff should be off the market and only used for those who cannot take ibuprofen or naproxen sodium

thanks for the reminder

Tom said...

The use of this medicine is necessary but also must be under strict parameters.