Like Niagara Falls at flood stage, the popular press has run dozen of stories about empathy. Generally defined as the ability to feel another’s pain (and presumably do something about it). Accounts have covered what is it; why it’s important; where did it go? Stories are usually paired with examples of what can happen when it’s in short supply.
The 1964 case of Kitty Genovese in Queens, NY is perhaps one of the most well known. The 28-year-old was savagely stabbed, sexually assaulted and murdered in a 30-minute attack. Throughout the ordeal, the woman screamed and pleaded for help. There were multiple witnesses, yet no one called the cops or intervened. In later interviews, witnesses said they assumed someone else would take responsibility.
In light of increasing rates of domestic violence, depression, random assaults, and incidents of road rage, a lot of people are talking about empathy. It’s being called the invisible net. Psychologists, clergy, teachers, criminal attorneys and childhood experts have examined empathy’s origins and loss. Their results fill a small library.
Until recently, lack of empathy was stuck in the closet with the general coarsening of society. After all, when a child’s TV diet includes 10,000 violent acts before the age of 8, it’s to be expected some people will go off the rails. Call it delayed collateral damage. Mix it with alcohol and we’ve got a rodeo. The daily scores are tallied in the News-Miner’s crime blotter. Empathy places last repeatedly.
However, it appears potential Good Samaritans are often foiled by a chemical concoction sold to ease pain. We might be better people but our pain relief meds get in the way. Data indicates that about 25 percent of Americans rely on a pain pill to get them through the day. In most cases, the pill for arthritis, toothaches, cramps, colds, fevers, strains and headaches contains acetaminophen.
The active ingredient in Tylenol, also found in other brand names, is acetaminophen. When used according to recommendations, there are few serious side effects. While experts admit its method of action remains unknown after 70 years of study, physicians are aware that long-term use leads to liver failure. Ironically, acetaminophen creates an even greater risk at the social level. Research shows it weakens empathy and human connections.
Studies are ongoing but among the latest results are these:
Because empathy regulates pro-social and anti-social behavior, these drug-induced reductions in empathy raise concerns about the broader social side effects of acetaminophen, which is taken by almost a quarter of adults in the United States each week.
From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain
“This means that using Tylenol or similar products might have broader consequences than previously thought. Rather than just being a pain reliever, acetaminophen can be seen as an all-purpose emotion reliever.” Geoffrey Dursoat of Ohio State University
Acetaminophen: A drug that deadens the joy as well as the pain
From personal experience, I’ve seen people’s joy for life and sensitivity to emotional cues go flat after long-term reliance on Tylenol. Grateful for escaping chronic pain, people don’t realize something vital has been lost in the bargain. They are often robotic, blunted, showing little curiosity, anger or joy. This is the zombie apocalypse – over the counter meds.
Adding insult to injury, further research suggests acetaminophen inhibits male sexuality. When used during pregnancy, the drug interferes with the gestational development of male behaviors. In mouse studies, if testosterone is not imprinted in the growing male fetus at the right time, its adult mating skills never mature. Lacking adequate testosterone levels, males began to exhibit female urinary territorial marking behavior.
Extrapolating mice studies to humans is a dicey proposition. And yet, look around, eyes wide open; what do you see?
Douglas Yates is a writer and photographer. He lives in Ester.