Paracetamol softens the realisation that we are mortal

One gram of paracetamol reduces the psychological pain you feel if the group you belong to decides they can get along better without you, we wrote recently. Well, according to psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada paracetamol also dulls a different type of psychological pain: the pain you feel when confronted with your own mortality or if you suddenly lose all understanding of the world in which you live.

One gram of paracetamol reduces the psychological pain you feel if the group you belong to decides they can get along better without you, we wrote recently. Well, according to psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada paracetamol also dulls a different type of psychological pain: the pain you feel when confronted with your own mortality or if you suddenly lose all understanding of the world in which you live.

One gram of paracetamol reduces the psychological pain you feel if the group you belong to decides they can get along better without you, we wrote recently. Well, according to psychologists at the University of British Columbia in Canada paracetamol also dulls a different type of psychological pain: the pain you feel when confronted with your own mortality or if you suddenly lose all understanding of the world in which you live.

The pain centres in your brain, which are activated when you experience physical pain, are also activated if you notice that people who are important to you are excluding you. These same pain centres are probably also activated if the expectations you had of life are not fulfilled, or if your view of the world is suddenly called into question. That’s what the Canadians suspect, at least.

If paracetamol can reduce pain caused by exclusion, might it perhaps also reduce the pain if your world is suddenly turned upside down? To answer this question the psychologist did an experiment with 121 subjects. Half of them were given a placebo [Placebo] and the other half were given 1 g paracetamol [Acetaminophen].

Half of each group was then asked to write for half an hour on the subject of their death, what would happen to their body afterwards and what they felt about this [Mortality Salience]. The other half of each group was asked to write a piece on toothache [Control].

We know that we will die, but we tend to suppress this knowledge in our conscious mind. We live our lives as if death did not exist – and certainly not our own death. Confronting our own mortality is therefore also painful the Canadians reasoned. When confronted with some kind of interference with their worldview people tend to react conservatively, clinging on to traditional ideas. They become more conservative and react more aggressively if they perceive their norms as being violated.

The Canadians tried to measure this conservative reaction by presenting their subjects with a hypothetical case about a prostitute being arrested. (Prostitutes don’t fit in the worldview of many people.) The subjects had to decide how much money the prostitute had to pay in order to be allowed to go home; they had to name a figure between 0 and 1000 euros.

The figure below shows that writing about mortality salience raised the amount of the bond – but it did not have this effect if the subjects had first taken paracetamol.

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In another similar experiment the researchers got half of their subjects to watch The Simpsons; the other half got to watch an episode of The Rabbits. The Simpsons is an upbeat cartoon; The Rabbits is a surrealistic sitcom made by filmmaker David Lynch. In his work Lynch plays with the rules we follow to understand films. Watching his films sucks you into a world that you don’t understand. And that’s often an oppressive experience.

After the subjects had watched either The Simpsons or The Rabbits the researchers asked them what they thought of football supporters who had gone on a rampage after their favourite club had lost a match, caused large amounts of damage and had then been arrested. The subjects had to indicate whether they thought the supporters should get a higher of actually a lower fine than normal.

The figure below shows that the subjects who had watched The Rabbits gave higher fines than the subjects who had watched The Simpsons. That didn’t happen though when the subjects had taken 1 g paracetamol before watching The Rabbits. The pain you experience as the world around you loses its meaning is also reduced by taking paracetamol.

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“Despite the many questions that these findings raise, they do demonstrate that acetaminophen has more far-reaching psychological consequences than previously realized, and that a single pill can serve as an effective manipulation in the lab”, the researchers conclude.

The common pain of surrealism and death: acetaminophen reduces compensatory affirmation following meaning threats.

Randles D, Heine SJ, Santos N.

Source

Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. danielrandles@psych.ubc.ca

Abstract

The meaning-maintenance model posits that any violation of expectations leads to an affective experience that motivates compensatory affirmation. We explore whether the neural mechanism that responds to meaning threats can be inhibited by acetaminophen, in the same way that acetaminophen inhibits physical pain or the distress caused by social rejection. In two studies, participants received either acetaminophen or a placebo and were provided with either an unsettling experience or a control experience. In Study 1, participants wrote about either their death or a control topic. In Study 2, participants watched either a surrealist film clip or a control film clip. In both studies, participants in the meaning-threat condition who had taken a placebo showed typical compensatory affirmations by becoming more punitive toward lawbreakers, whereas those who had taken acetaminophen, and those in the control conditions, did not.
KEYWORDS:

attitudes, brain, meaning, threat

PMID: 23579320 [PubMed – in process]

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23579320

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