Nervines, Acetaminophen, and Empathy

There’s an article circulating about a study showing that acetaminophen interferes with feeling empathy. The article is summarizing a scientific study that does indeed indicate that people experience less empathy after taking acetaminophen; this may be cause for concern, but the study begins with an even more interesting question.

According to the abstract, current theories about empathy “hypothesize that empathizing with others’ pain shares some overlapping psychological computations with the processing of one’s own pain. Support for this perspective has largely relied on functional neuroimaging evidence of an overlap between activations during the experience of physical pain and empathy for other people’s pain.” The double-blind study sets out to test this hypothesis by administering acetaminophen to one group of participants and then testing their empathetic response.

The traditional Western herbalists classify herbs for physical pain together with herbs for emotional support and for sleep; all fall under the heading of “nervines.” This classification exists because so many nervines do all three of these things well; motherwort, skullcap, and St. John’s wort (a.k.a. St. Joan’s wort) are examples. (Motherwort and SJW have other uses as well.) So the information from experience with plants seems to support the current theories about empathy.

The acetaminophen study set out to apply a neurochemical test to these theories via acetaminophen. This should lead us to another question: Do nervines and their pharmaceutical equivalents, including medications designed to help with sleep as well as pain meds, also interfere with feeling empathy? Presumably, acetaminophen is not the only medication that has this effect. To what extent? Just enough to take the edge off and make our empathy bearable, or enough to make us less compassionate? Should this influence titration? And how do the various herbs and pharmaceuticals compare in this regard?

Here’s the link to the abstract of the scientific study: http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/05/02/scan.nsw057

And here’s the link to the article popularizing it: http://sciencebulletin.org/archives/896.html

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