We’re all familiar with the mind-bending properties of psychedelic drugs – but it turns out ordinary medications can be just as potent. From paracetamol (known as acetaminophen in the US) to antihistamines, statins, asthma medications and antidepressants, there’s emerging evidence that they can make us impulsive, angry, or restless, diminish our empathy for strangers, and even manipulate fundamental aspects of our personalities, such as how neurotic we are.
…One reason medications can have such psychological clout is that the body isn’t just a bag of separate organs, awash with chemicals with well-defined roles – instead, it’s a network, in which many different processes are linked.
For example, scientists have known for a while that the medications used to treat asthma are sometimes associated with behavioural changes, such as an increase in hyperactivity and the development of ADHD symptoms.
…The list of potential culprits includes some of the most widely consumed drugs on the planet, meaning that even if the effects are small at an individual level, they could be shaping the personalities of millions of people.
…Mischkowski’s own research has uncovered a sinister side-effect of paracetamol. For a long time, scientists have known that the drug blunts physical pain by reducing activity in certain brain areas, such as the insular cortex, which plays an important role in our emotions. These areas are involved in our experience of social pain, too.
…The results revealed that paracetamol significantly reduces our ability to feel positive empathy – a result with implications for how the drug is shaping the social relationships of millions of people every day.
…But Golomb’s most unsettling discovery isn’t so much the impact that ordinary drugs can have on who we are – it’s the lack of interest in uncovering it. “There’s much more of an emphasis on things that doctors can easily measure,” she says, explaining that, for a long time, research into the side-effects of statins was all focused on the muscles and liver, because any problems in these organs can be detected using standard blood tests.
Not sure why this would be surprising or counter-intuitive.