Category Archives: Human behavior

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.

Chart of the day: Greek demographic implosion

From the Hellenic Statistical Authority, Greek deaths are rising [magenta] as births [dark blue] fall, declining even more dramatically with the onset of the Great Recession:blog-greece

Headline of the day II: More coulrophobia alerts

Following up on an earlier post, the latest spine-tingler for folks afflicted with a clown phobia comes from the London Daily Mail:

No laughing matter: How menacing clowns are terrorizing children and adults across the country… but is it all just a Halloween prank?

  • Dozens of clown sightings have been reported across the country 
  • Some tried to lure children in to woods with cash and lasers, it was claimed
  • A 16-year-old was stabbed in Pennsylvania by someone wearing a mask
  • In Kentucky a man was arrested for hiding in bushes in full costume
  • Police have increased their patrols and are urging caution to parents
  • Professional clowns have grown frustrated with the ‘imposters’
  • Spike is due to the month of the year with Halloween looming, say experts

Evidence of depression found at a cellular level

One of the enduring mysteries of genetic science has been the function of telomeres, the repetitious sequences of molecules at the end of every chromosome, sequences lost during every replication as cells fuse or reproduce with the organism.

Their most essential function is to protect the genes within the chromosomes from being lost. The downside is that with each reproductive act, telomere molecules are lost, leading eventually to damages to genetic material, leading to disease and aging.

Recent research has revealed that telomere loss can be accelerated by major episodes of depression and childhood trauma, the latter indicated in this graphic from a presentation by University of California San Francisco Medical School researcher Owen M. Wolkowitz, a research psychiatrist whose work focuses on the role of telomeres in depression:


While Freud and traditional psychiatry contended that depression was largely or wholly a result of disturbed thinking, the work of Wolkowitz and others is throwing a whole new light on an affliction impacting the lives of millions, their families, and their colleagues.

In this video from University of California Television, Wolkowitz describes the fascinating insights revealed by the fascinating field of biological psychiatry:

Sadness and the Cell: Is Depression All in Your Body or is it All in Your Mind?

Program notes:

Is stress just in your head or can its impact be physical? Owen M. Wolkowitz, MD examines how stress and depression can affect the body on a cellular level and shares treatment and lifestyle interventions that can help.

Headline of the day II: Coulrophobia fears confirmed

From USA Today, validation for all you coulrophobes:

Clown threats close Ohio schools after woman reports being attacked

Reading schools are closed Friday after a woman reported being attacked by a male dressed as a clown. The woman told police the attacker made a threat against students.

Map of the day: Gay marriage concentration in U.S.

From a new report from the Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis, the relative concentration of same sex marriages in the U.S. in 2014 [and it should come as no surprise that San Francisco has the highest number of any city in the land]:


Chart of the day: Targets of U.S. hate crimes

The latest available breakdown from the Federal Bureau of Investigation:

BLOG Hate crimes
Given the tenor of the current presidential election, we expect the numbers for 2016 may be higher.

And bear in mind that these figures are only for crimes actually reported to police, and given the mistrust of police in minority communities, the actual proportions could be significantly different.