Can taking painkillers curb your empathy for others?

Occasionally medical research throws up something ­intriguing that might, just might, affect your everyday life. Would you believe a painkiller could make you feel less affectionate?

I’m not sure I entirely believe it but assistant professor Dominik Mischkowski, a psychologist at Ohio University, has gone as far as to say paracetamol is capable of changing people’s personalities to the extent their emotions become blunted.

Paracetamol numbs pain by damping down the sensitivity of the brain’s pain receptors.

Prof Mischkowski says at the same time it can block your ability to feel compassion and empathy. So could paracetamol stop you feeling loved up and empathetic?

MRI scans show the same parts of the brain light up when feeling positive empathy – pleasure on other people’s behalf – and also when we feel pain.

To expand on his theory Prof Mischkowski investigated the effect of paracetamol on behaviour in a study of 114 Ohio University students split into two groups.

One group was given a single dose of 1,000mg of paracetamol and the other group a placebo. An hour later when the paracetamol had been absorbed volunteers were asked to read inspiring stories about peoples’ success and rate how much pleasure they felt. They were also asked to grade how empathetic they felt for the characters in the stories.

And yes, you’ve guessed it, students who took paracetamol felt ­significantly less positive empathy.

Prof Mischkowski says this research is the ‘most worrisome that he’s ever conducted’.

But wait a minute! What does his research mean in the real world? Well, in the first place the effect of a dose of paracetamol only lasts a few hours so its effect on empathy and pain is short-lived. One dose isn’t going to make you into a cold-hearted person.

But should you think twice before taking paracetamol if you’re going to have an intimate chat with someone?

This is what Prof Mischkowski suggests. He points out that there’s a gap in research of how medication can affect what we feel and how we act. For most drugs we don’t understand if and how they influence our behaviour. And ­paracetamol is a drug taken by millions of people every day.

Maybe Mischkowski’s work opens up a whole new area of research into how the commonest drug we take could change our personalities and affect our behaviour. And should we be saying avoid paracetamol if you’re going to have a sensitive conversation with a loved one or colleague? Maybe.