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Many people reach for Tylenol to ease aches and pains. And it turns out Tylenol may do more than relieve physical pain. Studies show it may help to ease hurt feelings. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Most of us don't like that feeling of being left out. And when it happens, Psychologist Nathan DeWall says we tend to explain it this way.
NATHAN DEWALL: When people talk about feeling excluded, they often use the same words that they would use for physical pain. They say, I feel hurt.
AUBREY: So if we describe, say, a tooth ache or a broken bone the same way we describe the pain of a social slight, maybe the two types of pain have more in common than we'd realized. DeWall, who's a professor at the University of Kentucky, was curious. So he and his collaborators designed an experiment. They recruited a bunch of volunteers to participate in a virtual game. It was a simple ball toss. Now, before the game started, some of the participants were given acetaminophen, which is the active ingredient in Tylenol.
Others were given a placebo pill. None of them knew which one they were given.
DEWALL: And in this game, all that they had to do was press button boxes to throw the ball to two virtual players.
AUBREY: Now, at first, all the players tossed to each other. But after a few minutes, the game was rigged to make each player feel excluded.
DEWALL: Imagine yourself being in the situation. You're throwing the ball back and forth to these strangers. And then suddenly, they just stop throwing you the ball for no reason. That's the pain of social rejection.
AUBREY: Now, what DeWall found is that people who'd been given Tylenol were not too upset by this experience. But he saw a different reaction in the placebo group. He gauged their responses by analyzing brain scans.
DEWALL: Among people who took the placebo pills, what you find is that when they experience that pain of rejection, that parts of their brain were activated that are similar to if they had stubbed their toe or experienced other sorts of physical pain. But people who took the painkillers didn't show it as much.
AUBREY: And how strong is this effect? I mean, imagining if Tylenol really does have this power to ease our hurt feelings, that we might have known about it before now.
DEWALL: You know, I would say, you know, what we found is people still know that they're getting left out. It just doesn't bother them as much.
AUBREY: Follow-up studies suggests that Tylenol may have a range of subtle psychological effects. It seems to dampen emotional highs and lows. It can also increase the ability to just tune out. Todd Handy of the University of British Columbia, who's done some of this research, says what seems to happen when people take Tylenol is this.
TODD HANDY: They're shutting stuff out a lot more effectively than people who aren't on Tylenol. It's just reducing a little bit our propensity to evaluate what's happening around us.
AUBREY: Now, whether these effects are good or bad depends on the context. Researcher Baldwin Way of Ohio State says there's value in knowing the drug's potential effects on our emotions. And he says in some instances, this emotional dampening could work against us.
BALDWIN WAY: If you're speaking to your romantic partner and their emotions are blunted and you're telling something that was a very big heart ache or something that was very exciting to you and they react blunted and less emotional, that can probably have a negative effect.
AUBREY: On the other hand, say you're anxious about a medical procedure, a social situation or a job interview.
WAY: Maybe having a little blunted emotions might actually help you perform more effectively.
AUBREY: Now, no one is recommending that people start popping Tylenol regularly to protect against social pain. Taking Tylenol, especially for extended periods, can be risky.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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