We’re living in unfair times – one of the most unfair in recent history. And now my husband Bryan Hubbard may have come up with a reasonable answer as to why. It may have something to do, believe it or not, with aspirin and paracetamol or acetaminophen, those everyday painkillers we buy and consume by the shovelfuls to blunt the pain of everyday living. The problem is, as Bryan discovered, these painkillers also blunt our emotions.
Same brain pathways
Psychologist Naomi Eisenberger and her colleagues from UCLA have been studying the sources in the brain of physical pain, and they’ve discovered that the very same part of the brain that registers physical pain (the anterior cingulate cortex) also registers social pain, such as rejection, exclusion – or even a sense of unfairness. And now we have discovered that treating the one also affects the other.
Recent studies show that a single dose of acetaminophen blunts physical pain, but also numbs us to social pain like hurt feelings or the outrage we generally feel when things are unfair, or even our positive feelings toward a social group. In other words, painkillers make us a little less human, a lot less concerned about other people and whether they are kind or cruel to us, or indeed whether we return a good deed.
A lot less concerned about unfairness.
Every man, woman and child
Just think of the implications of this, considering the amount of painkilling we currently do. In America alone, doctors hand out some 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers – almost one for every man, woman and child in the country. In one year alone, Americans spent about $4 billion on over-the-counter pain killers.
In Britain, people take an average of 373 painkillers every year, according to the British Medical Association study; one in every 20 adults take at least six painkillers every time they’re feeling under the weather. And that was 13 years ago. All those people getting blunted to sensitivity to others. All those people not giving a damn anymore about whether things are unfair.