The Broken Heart Drug


Charles Schulz, the creator of the iconic comic strip Peanuts, saw the stripe’s protagonist, Charlie Brown, as a laughable loser. According to the Peanuts Wikia, Schulz once said that “Charlie Brown must be the one who suffers, because he’s a caricature of the average person. Most of us are much more acquainted with losing than winning. Winning is great, but it isn’t funny.” And, as seen in the comic above, Charlie Brown was no stranger to the perils of a broken heart. It even ruined the taste of his peanut butter sandwich.

Charlie Brown probably should have taken some Tylenol.

Tylenol — or, more accurately, its active drug, acetaminophen — is designed to alleviate physical pain. The bottle says that it “temporarily relieves minor aches and pains due to the common cold, headache, backache, minor pain of arthritis, toothache, muscle aches, and premenstrual and menstrual cramps.” It also “temporarily reduces fever.” If you’re at all familiar with the drug, there are no surprises there. But some researchers believe that Tylenol may also alleviate emotional pain from social rejection.

How? A 2013 article in The Atlantic quotes Daniel Randles, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who led the team. Randles notes that “physical pain and social rejection share a neural process and subjective component that are experienced as distress.” He and his team wondered if the drug, therefore, could blunt the distress caused by unrequited love (or being blown off by your friends). That’s not the easiest thing to test, and what Randles and company did was hardly conclusive — but it’s interesting nonetheless.

In the first test, Randles team divided 120 people into two groups. The first group was asked to write about death, intending to provoke anxiety within that group. The second group was asked to write about something a lot less meaningful — the Atlantic uses “going to the dentist” as an example. Half of each group was given two extra-strength Tylenol before writing; the other half was given a placebo. All four sub-groups were the asked “how high they would set bond for a hypothetical person arrested for prostitution.” The results: as seen below, the “mortality salience” group (that is, the ones that wrote about death) acted the same as the “describe the dentist” group if they took Tylenol, setting the bond at about $300. But if the death writers took the placebo, the bond went up to $450.

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The other test involved The Simpsons:

[The researchers] primed the subjects by having them watch video clips. They either watched The Simpsons or a film by surrealistic neonoir writer/director David Lynch, in which humans with rabbit heads wander an urban apartment muttering non sequiturs. They then passed judgment on people arrested in a hockey riot. Again, the people in the existential mindset imposed harsh sanctions, but the people who’d watched The Simpsons were lenient. If they’d taken Tylenol first, though, the David Lynch-induced anxiety was apparently blunted. They recommended the same sanctions as the Simpsons-primed group.

Death, the dentist, prostitution, the Simpsons, and people with rabbit heads — science sure can be weird. In this case, that’s because it’s hard to develop a proxy for unrequited love. The attempts here to do so may call into question whether Tylenol really does help heal a broken heart. But for those Charlie Browns out there, at least there’s some hope.



Bonus Fact:  Charles Schulz died on February 12, 2000, just a few hours before the last strip of Peanuts debuted in Sunday papers around the globe. (He had been suffering from colon cancer and, the previous December, retired due to the disease, but not all of his strips had yet been published at that point.) On May 27 of that year, dozens of cartoonists paid tribute to Schulz by incorporating Peanuts references into their strips. You can see a collection of them here. (I particularly like the Garfield one.)

Take the Quiz: Charlie Brown loved baseball. Can you name the members of his baseball team by the position they played? (Note: if you don’t have the right position selected when you type in the character’s name, you won’t get credit.)

From the Archives: Cupid’s Axe: You actually can die from a broken heart. (But don’t worry, it’s very rare.)

Related: The Complete Peanuts 1991-1994 Box Set. To give an idea as to how prolific Schulz was, the set is volumes 21 and 22 (out of 25) of Peanuts. This set has 39 reviews, and every single one is a 5-star review. The comics would make Charlie Brown smile.