Chickensoup for the Soul, Tylenol for the Broken Heart

Jan 15, 2010 • News, Research

“How long does it last?!” I screamed at Melissa, startling the barista at the westside Starbucks who’d taken my order.

“It’s like a fucking gash that feels like a fucking ton on my fucking chest,” I said, referring to the recent conclusion of a relationship. “HOW LONG DOES IT LAST?”

“I… I don’t know,” she replied. “It depends.”

If she’d told me to pop a Tylenol, I’d have probably slapped her. But research by Naomi Eisenberger suggests that the pain we feel emotionally and the pain we experience physically are closely related, both occurring in the anterior cingulate cortex.

With that in mind, psychologist C. Nathan DeWall and colleagues at the University of Kentucky had 25 subjects to take either acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a placebo for three weeks, and then to lie in a brain scanner and play a multi-player video game requiring teamwork, rigged to make them feel brutally ignored.

DeWall’s team discovered that the subjects who had taken Tylenol showed less activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. These findings suggest that over-the-counter painkillers normally used for physical aches and pains do have an effect on alleviating the pain we feel emotionally from alienating social situations.

Because the sample was small, the results are less than conclusive, but if this is the case and analgesics can work to deal with some of our heartache… well, imagine that.

Jeff Wise, author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, comments:

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?

Worth a shot. Just promise you’ll self-medicate reasonably.

Image by bored-now. Information from Psychology Today.