Tylenol Helps Clear Up Existential Dread, Psychology Study Claims

  @rpalmerscience on April 16 2013 2:50 PM

Tylenol might be able to clear up your existential angst along with your fever, new research says.

"Pain extends beyond tissue damage and hurt feelings, and includes the distress and existential angst we feel when we're uncertain or have just experienced something surreal,” University of British Columbia researcher Daniel Randles, the lead author of a paper published in the journal Psychological Science, said in a statement Tuesday. “Regardless of the kind of pain, taking Tylenol seems to inhibit the brain signal that says something is wrong."

Randles and his colleagues recruited 121 people to participate in two experiments weighing the effectiveness of 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen against a nameless lurking anxiety stemming from deep within the recesses of the psyche.

In the first experiment, the researchers examined how Tylenol helped people cope following one of the more common sources of existential dread: awareness of one’s own mortality. Participants were asked to either write about what would happen to their body after death -- an angst-inducing thought -- or write about tooth pain, an uncomfortable but not existential crisis-inducing subject. Then all the study participants were handed an arrest report about a prostitute, and asked to set the bail amount.

According to one psychological hypothesis called the meaning maintenance model, people naturally seek to address things that disturb their expectations. But some kinds of disturbing experiences, like existential dread, aren't easily addressed, prompting a person to feel the need to assert values or beliefs -- even ones unrelated to the source of psychological turmoil -- in response to their anxiety. So in this experiment, setting a high bail amount would theoretically allow the study subjects to affirm their belief that prostitution is wrong.

In the group of subjects that wrote about dental pain, people set relatively low bail amounts, with virtually no difference between the medicated and unmedicated individuals. But among the group that had written about their own death, people that took the placebo came down harshly on the prostitute, setting a much higher bail; in the acetaminophen group, bail was lower on average.

A similar scenario played out in the second experiment, where some people were primed for angst by watching a clip from the David Lynch short film series “Rabbits.” These films feature people in bunny suits conversing in non-sequiturs like “I wonder who I will be” on a sitcom-like set, occasionally punctuated by a laugh track and surreal visuals like the sudden appearance of a burning hole in the wall. The control group watched a clip from “The Simpsons.”

Strange art films, like the awareness of our mortality, can induce existential dread because they shake us out of the expected, the scientists said.

“Insofar as it ‘hurts’ to watch some of Lynch’s films, as it arguably does whenever we are assaulted by thoughts and experiences that are at odds with our expectations and values, we might question how this uncomfortable feeling is represented in the brain,” Randles and his colleagues wrote.

After viewing the film clips, subjects were then asked to comment on the appropriate punishment for rioters in a recent incident following a hockey game. Again, both control groups and the medicated art film watchers were more lenient; people that took sugar pills and watched the Lynch clip called for more punitive measures against the rioters.

Admittedly, there are some limitations to the study. There’s no simple test to detect that someone is suffering from existential dread, and it’s unclear what specific brain regions or signals are responsible for questioning one’s own identity and existence. Other pain relievers might also be effective in keeping ego-shattering anxiety at bay.

But isn't getting caught up in the throes of existential angst pretty much the reason people go to see art movies anyway? And couldn't the sudden angst provoked by awareness of one's death be a positive motivator in a person's life? There's larger philosophical questions at play here.

Nevertheless, Randles and his colleagues suggest their findings may shed light on how people that suffer from anxiety and doubt might cope, and demonstrate that “acetaminophen has far more reaching psychological consequences than previously realized.”

SOURCE: Randles et al. "The common pain of surrealism and death: Acetaminophen reduces compensatory affirmation following meaning threats." Psychological Science published online 13 April 2013.

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