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Existential Crisis: Apparently, There’s a Pill For That

Greetings, intrepid readers! It’s been a long, long time, hasn’t it? I took a break from blogging for a while (okay, more than year, but who’s counting?) to do stuff like go to grad school, do an internship, save the world… Y’know, the usual. But now I’m back, living in the Really Real World, and attempting to make a living as a no-kidding science writer.

So, on that note, let’s get to it.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found the mental anguish of existential dread can be eased with acetaminophen (or paracetamol, for folks in other parts of the world)—commonly sold as Tylenol here in the U.S.

Previous research has already shown that acetaminophen can treat pain even when it isn’t physical—like the social pain of being treated badly by others. So, Daniel Randles and his colleagues decided to see if Tylenol can deaden the ache of a head-on collision with one’s own mortality. And it looks like it can.

In the current study, participants in the experimental condition were given either Tylenol or a placebo, and then asked to write about what would happen to their bodies after they were dead (while controls wrote about dental pain, an annoying but significantly less distressing topic for most).

Earlier work has found that, when people are forced to contemplate their own imminent demise, one of the things they often do in response is more strongly assert their values—by, for example, punishing wrong-doers more harshly. So, Randles and company used this as a proxy measure of participants’ existential angst, having them set the bail amount for a (fictional) jailed prostitute.

Those participants who’d written about toothaches were much kinder to the wayward lady of the night than were those who’d just finished meditating on being worm-food. But the worm-food contingent were kinder if they’d been dosed with Tylenol than if they’d only taken a sugar pill—suggesting the common painkiller can ease the burden of contemplating our own mortality.

In a second study, the researchers showed participants a David Lynch film and then asked them to pass judgment on a group of rioters at a hockey game. Those who’d been given Tylenol were much more lenient to the hockey hooligans, in line with the results from the first study—and, more importantly, confirming what years of anecdotal evidence had already suggested:

David Lynch films give people existential crises.

So, the next time you’re contemplating your own brief turn on the universal stage, wrestling with a persistent, nagging sense of spiritual emptiness, or marathoning the first season of Twin Peaks on Netflix, you might try taking Tylenol for that.

You can find the original journal article here.