The kind of pain that you feel when you get rejected socially feels different from the hurt you feel when you break your leg or scald your hand, but neurologically speaking, they're closely related. As researcher Naomi Eisenberger has shown, circuitry underlying both sorts of pain are found in the anterior cingulate cortex.
But if that's the case, can a drug that dulls pain in the body have a similar effect on one's emotions? A surprising new study suggests that the answer is yes. Psychologist C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology led a team that asked 25 subjects to take either acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) or a placebo for three weeks, and then to lie in a brain scanner and play a video game that was rigged to make them feel uncomfortably ostracized. (Such games typically involve passing an electronic ball back and forth among three players, two of whom are actually a computer program and ignore the test subject after the beginning of the game.)
DeWall's team found that the subjects who had taken the Tylenol showed less activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. According to the paper, the "findings suggest that at least temporary mitigation of social pain-related distress may be achieved by means of an over-the-counter painkiller that is normally used for physical aches and pains."
The study was small, so the finding has to be regarded as preliminary, but if it's true then DeWall has found something remarkable. It's been well established that social and physical pain are linked, but before now no one had guessed the same analgesic could work for both.
Now that the possibility is out there, the idea seems eminently plausible. On the flip side of the equation, it's long been known that hugs and kisses from a loved one help reduce the sensation of physical pain. (It's amazing how quickly my one-year-old son stops crying after I kiss the spot where he's bumped his head). In fact, Eisenberger published another study last year which found that even looking at the photograph of a loved one can reduce the sensation of pain. So why shouldn't the analgesia work the other way, as well?
Now, for anyone planning to dose up on Tylenol in anticipation of social rejection, DeWall and his colleagues caution that "our findings do not constitute a call for widespread use of acetaminophen to cope with all types of personal problems. Future research is needed to verify the potential benefits of acetaminophen on reducing emotional and antisocial responses to social rejection." They also point out that long-term use of acetaminophen can lead to liver damage.
And that really would be a pain.