Tylenol Fights Headaches…and Existential Angst?

Existential angst and physical pain may both be located in the same part of the brain; Tylenol may be able to help with both.

Photo: TZM Photo

Everyone knows you can pop a Tylenol to ease a headache or reduce a fever. But that’s not all. A new study suggests that you can also take Tylenol to ease the psychological angst of watching weird, twisted David Lynch films, or to generally ward off existential dread of death and nothingness.

In what is perhaps one of the oddest studies in recent memory, researchers in the psychology department at the University of British Columbia hypothesized that overwhelming feelings of pointlessness and physical pain may be located in the same part of the brain, LiveScience explains. So they decided to test the effects of acetaminophen, Tylenol’s main ingredient, on easing the anxiety brought on by pondering the meaning of life. 

First, the researchers enrolled 120 students to take either 1,000 mg of Tylenol or a placebo. Then, they divided the students into two random groups and asked them to perform one of the following strange tasks:

One group of participants was instructed to write two paragraphs about what would happen to their body after they die and how they would feel about it. The others were asked to write about dental pain, which would be unpleasant, but likely wouldn’t invoke any existential anxieties. All of the students then had to read a hypothetical arrest report about a prostitute and set the amount for bail on a scale of $0 to $900.

In this type of setup, researchers typically expect people to set higher bonds after faced with existential thoughts, suddenly feeling a need to assert their values. As anticipated, those who took the sugar pill and were forced to think about their own death tended to set bail over $500.

The placebo group who only wrote about dental pain, on the other hand, set the prostitute’s bond at $300 – the same amount that people who took Tylenol and then thought about their earthly body’s putrid decay settled upon. The researchers think the Tylenol’s acetaminophen may have numbed their existential pain and made them more lenient towards the imprisoned prostitute, LiveScience writes.

The students weren’t finished yet. Next, they either settled down to watch either a four minute clip of The Simpsons or a scene from a characteristically disturbing David Lynch film called Rabbits.

“Rabbits” doesn’t have explicitly disturbing content, but its three characters look like humans with rabbit heads and they move aimlessly in and out of a badly lit suburban living room. Instead of conversation, they make non-sequitur statements like “There have been no calls today” and “I have a secret,” often incongruously followed by a laugh track or applause. And similar to Lynch’s better-known works like “Twin Peaks” and “Mulholland Drive,” “Rabbits” is set to an eerie, dread-inducing soundtrack.

After their trip down surreal lane, or else their joyride with The Simpsons, the students all watched scenes from the 2011 Vancouver hockey riots. The researchers then asked the participants how harshly the vandalizing rioters should be punished. Those who took the placebo and were also subjected to the weirdness of Rabbits said they thought the rioters should be punished harshly. But those supposedly numbed by Tylenol who also watched the Lynch clip reacted more leniently, as did those who watched The Simpsons.

Whether or not the participants of this bizarre study were totally weirded out by this whole experience, whether aided by Tylenol or not, was unfortunately not addressed by the study’s findings.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Destruction and Decay 
When I Die: Lessons From the Death Zone 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.