Chances are, you treat Tylenol kind of like candy—you pop one or two when you're feeling blah without giving it too much thought. But new research suggests you might want to be more careful. The OTC painkiller might reduce your fever, muscles pain, and headache, but it may also affect your brain in these surprising ways:
1. It makes you oblivious to your mistakes. In a recent study, researchers gave 62 adults the equivalent of two Extra-Strength Tylenol or a placebo, then monitored their brain activity during a task that involved pressing a button every time an F appeared on screen but not when an E popped up. People who'd taken acetaminophen were less likely to register their mistakes than people who'd swallowed placebos. The researchers think acetaminophen may distract you or straight-up inhibit your ability to register mistakes. Either way, more research is needed to fully explain the phenomenon.
2. It tempers your emotions. When Ohio State University researchers showed two groups of people photos designed to elicit an emotional reaction, the group given acetaminophen rated positive images less positively, negative images less negatively, and all images less emotionally arousing than participants who were given a placebo. What this means: taking this medication could mean a reaction that's passive or indifferent whether your man surprises you with flowers or shows up to dinner 25 minutes late.
3. It makes rejection feel like no big deal. When researchers gave 25 people the equivalent of four Extra-Strength Tylenols or a placebo, then scanned their brains while they played a computer game designed to muster feelings of social rejection, the painkillers appeared to blunt the game's negative effects. Meanwhile, the poor placebo group was more likely to register social pain—and even some physical pain. The implication: When Tylenol's active ingredient gets to work at fighting pain, it doesn't differentiate between physical and emotional pain, it just wipes it all out.
4. It messes with your morals. When thoughts of dying cross your mind, you may be more prone to take out any anxiety on other people by acting less sympathetic. But when Canadian researchers asked a bunch of people to write about their bodies after death and then had them set a hypothetical bail for a woman arrested for prostitution, the participants who were given acetaminophen before the exercise were more sympathetic and set lower bails. The implication: Acetaminophen chills you out when existential anxiety strikes—and lessons the after-effects in anxiety-provoking situations.
And as for the drug's intended use—to alleviate pain? It might not work much better than a popping a placebo, according to recent research. So, anyone got an aspirin?