Acetaminophen, the main ingredient in some pain relievers like Tylenol, may ease minor aches, reduce a fever, and apparently make you feel less weird after watching a David Lynch movie or thinking about your own death.
New research shows Tylenol may have the unseen psychological side-effect of easing existential dread. The findings suggest anxiety about finding meaning in life and feeling physical pain may be rooted in the same part of the brain.
"When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they're feeling may actually be painful distress," said study researcher Daniel Randles, a doctoral student in psychology the University of British Columbia. [10 Weird Ways We Deal With Death]
"We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress," Randles wrote in an email to LiveScience.
What happens when you die?
For their first experiment, Randles and his colleagues recruited more than 120 college students, who were randomly assigned to take either 1,000 mg of Tylenol-brand acetaminophen or a placebo (sugar pill), considered the control group. (Extra strength Tylenol contains 500 mg of acetaminophen in each tablet.)
One group of participants was instructed to write two paragraphs about what would happen to their body after they die and how they would feel about it. The others were asked to write about dental pain, which would be unpleasant, but likely wouldn't invoke any existential anxieties. All of the students then had to read a hypothetical arrest report about a prostitute and set the amount for bail on a scale of $0 to $900.
In this type of setup, researchers typically expect people to set higher bonds after faced with existential thoughts, suddenly feeling a need to assert their values. As anticipated, those who took the sugar pill and were forced to think about their own death tended to set bail over $500.
Meanwhile, the control group that wrote about dental pain set relatively low bail amounts, hovering around $300, Randles and his team found. The same was true for those who took Tylenol and wrote about what would happen to their body when they die, suggesting acetaminophen may numb worries about death.
David Lynch-induced dread
The team confirmed the results in a second test where they made some students watch either a four-minute clip from "The Simpsons" or a clip from "Rabbits," a 2002 series of short films by director David Lynch that puts a surreal spin on familiar sitcom clichés.
"Rabbits" doesn't have explicitly disturbing content, but its three characters look like humans with rabbit heads and they move aimlessly in and out of a badly lit suburban living room. Instead of conversation, they make non-sequitur statements like "There have been no calls today" and "I have a secret," often incongruously followed by a laugh track or applause. And similar to Lynch's better-known works like "Twin Peaks" and "Mulholland Drive," "Rabbits" is set to an eerie, dread-inducing soundtrack.
After watching this clip, the students looked at footage from the 2011 Vancouver hockey riots, sparked by the Canucks' loss in their bid for the Stanley Cup, and were asked how harshly the rioters should be punished for vandalism. Those who took the sugar pill and watched the clip of "Rabbits" were much more punitive, on average saying the rioters should be fined more than they normally would for an act of vandalism. Those who took Tylenol before they watched "Rabbits" seemed to feel more lenient, as did all of the students who watched "The Simpsons."
Previous studies have shown that acetaminophen may also ease the blow of social snubs, and some researchers have argued that both physical pain and feelings of rejection are caused by activation in the brain's dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.
"We've suspected that this brain region also is central in managing violations of expectations and errors, and as such predicted Tylenol would have the same effect on manipulations of uncertainty or existential unease that it has on headaches or ostracism," Randles said in an email.
As for clinical applications of the findings, the researchers say their work could shed light on how to allay the symptoms of people who suffer from chronic anxiety.
The new findings were detailed on April 11 in the journal Psychological Science.
Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.