Drugs to kill physical pain may also dull empathy

As we posted back in May, a new study indicates that one of the most common painkillers we consume to ease the pains of daily life may kill another sort of pain, the angst we feel when we encounter the pain and anxieties most of us feel when encountering  others undergoing crises.

We shouldn’t be surprised, given that some of the same brain regions [bilateral anterior insula, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, brainstem, and cerebellum] are involved [open access] in both the experiencing of our own pain and our response to the pain felt by others.

A 2006 Franco-Canadian study [open access] found that people born with a congenital insensitivity to pain [CIP] were also less empathetic to pain in others.

As the authors concluded, “In the absence of functional somatic resonance mechanisms shaped by previous pain experiences, others’ pain might be greatly underestimated, however, especially when emotional cues are lacking, unless the observer is endowed with sufficient empathic abilities to fully acknowledge the suffering experience of others in spite of his own insensitivity.”

The authors noted that the learned ability to recognize facial cues may result in an empathetic response, a skill sociopaths appear unable to master.

Other research [open access] reveals that “empathy with feelings of the others, and self-experience of this feeling state recruit shared neural networks, suggesting a simulation of the other’s state in the brain of the empathizer.”

The brain regions in question [open access] are the bilateral anterior insula, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, brainstem, and cerebellum.

Another study [$35.95 for full access] reveals that for professionals whose work might be impaired by too much empathy for suffering in another [physicians in the case of the study] can learn to dampen their natural emotional response, concluding that “physicians’ down-regulation of the pain response dampens their negative arousal in response to the pain of others and thus may have many beneficial consequences including freeing up cognitive resources necessary for being of assistance.”

And that brings us to a talk by University of California, Santa Barbara neuropsychologist Kyle Ratner, via University of California Television:

Can Acetaminophen Influence How We Perceive Other People?

Program notes:

The popular over-the-counter medication, acetaminophen, is generally used to reduce fever and pain. However, a growing body of research suggests that the drug has broader psychological effects. Experimental social psychologist Kyle Ratner discuss his research examining the effects of acetaminophen on social group biases in person perception.

While the studies have focused on one painkiller, we suspect that other, similar drugs may act in similar ways.


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