A recent article published in the journal Psychological Science showed that 1,000 mg of Tylenol reduces hurt feelings and social pain. Furthermore, this study also showed that 2,000 mg of Tylenol reduces the brain's response to social pain. (Tylenol was compared with a placebo in these studies.1) While this is not a reason to go out and use Tylenol if you have been socially rejected just yet, it is preliminary evidence that the pathways for social and physical pain may be connected. The reason for Tylenol's effects is not clear, but there are a number of intriguing possibilities. For example, Tylenol reduces anxiety in part by affecting the same receptors as naturally occurring cannabinoids -- the body's own "marijuana."2 And we know that marijuana can also be useful for physical pain. Here again, we see how one receptor target for anxiety may cross-react with the receptor target for physical pain.3
This study points to many possibly important facts, not the least of which is that the brain responds to social and physical pain similarly. These pathways are probably linked. The brain is curious in that it is often not able to distinguish between related constructs. Take, for example, the idea of warmth. Another study showed that people who briefly held a cup of hot coffee (as opposed to a cup of iced coffee) judged other people as being "warmer" interpersonally, thinking of them as more generous and caring. Also, people who held a hot therapeutic pad versus cold were more likely to choose a gift for a friend rather than for themselves.4 In this case, it appears that the insula is the culprit -- it processes physical warmth and social warmth.
This, to me, is extremely interesting. Does it mean that we can change how we feel socially by changing how we feel physically and vice versa? Here are a few potential situations that could benefit from easy interventions based on these two pieces of brain science. Note that the findings of these studies would need to be verified before we use these interventions, but for now, the possibility seems intriguing:
1. You have just been rejected by a romantic interest. All your hopes and dreams are dashed. You feel downhearted and the pain of not feeling loved has left you very distressed. How curious then, that at this point you might think: perhaps a Tylenol would help.
2. You have a hangover in the midst of an argument in which you feel jealous and rejected. That Tylenol may be helpful for more than just your headache; it may also help your feelings of social rejection.
3. You are going to an interview. You come off as being a little cold usually. Perhaps you should bring a cup of hot coffee to your interviewer so that you can be seen as warmer.
4. You are meeting your in-laws for the first time. Put something warm in their hands before you sit down to have a chat.
5. You are going shopping with your parents. Put something warm in their hands to increase the chances that they will get you something.
The scenarios are really endless, but I thought that this cross-wiring may make for some interesting interventions in many life scenarios. Of course, you would want to make sure that you do not abuse these interventions. Tylenol is not without side effects, and too much Tylenol could be very dangerous to your liver. And the heat intervention cannot be entirely relied upon. Still, this overlap could make for some interesting findings down the line. Can you think of any situations where this would be useful?
1. Dewall, C.N., et al., Acetaminophen reduces social pain: behavioral and neural evidence. Psychol Sci, 2010. 21(7): p. 931-7.
2. Umathe, S.N., et al., Endocannabinoids mediate anxiolytic-like effect of acetaminophen via CB1 receptors. Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry, 2009. 33(7): p. 1191-9.
3. Kogan, N.M. and R. Mechoulam, Cannabinoids in health and disease. Dialogues Clin Neurosci, 2007. 9(4): p. 413-30.
4. Williams, L.E. and J.A. Bargh, Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 2008. 322(5901): p. 606-7