An image saying the title of the story "Emotion to go" and author "Helena Hartmann". It also includes the logo of Science & Fiction and a picture of three colorful pills.

A story about taking a pill that will change your life forever.

Content warning

  • drug use

The short story

Take it, Isabella said. It makes you feel like you’ve never felt before. I looked down at the little red and blue capsule in my hand and back at her. So you’ve taken it before? I asked her. Hundreds of times, she exclaimed and laughed. It’s crazy, like when I am on it, I think to myself, have I even lived properly before? Did I even know what emotions were? Do I even know what pain is, or happiness, or excitement? Everything is heightened. So it’s like LSD, I say suspiciously, still holding the red-blue capsule in the open palm of my hand. It looks so small, so harmless. But contains a whole cocktail of pharmaceutical wonders, I remind myself. Crazy to think that such a small thing can change your whole perception, though, I said. It somehow feels warm in my hand, like it is giving off some form of power, the eternal glow of life, full of hopes and promises.

No way, Isabella said. It is so much more than that. Let me give you an example. When you see a homeless person on the street, what’s your first reaction?, she asks. Uhm, I … I don’t know what to reply. Well, I know what to reply but it doesn’t seem right. You turn away, that’s what you do. That’s what everybody does. But EmGo is the solution to this and much more. Isabella sounds like one of these hypermotivated people in advertisements, fully committed to their product, completely convinced that it will save humanity. She does work at the big pharmaceutical company where they produce it, next to many other similar ones. Which is why she was one of the first ones ever to try it out. And she is not wrong, I would turn away. I have always been a person who can easily slip into other people’s shoes. But that has given me more sorrow, pain, despair and sadness than anything else, never mind anything positive. In order to not feel too much, I have to shut myself off from other people’s pain. It is about embracing those emotions, not suppressing them, Isabella goes on and on like a CD stuck on repeat. EmGo helps you deal with those emotions. You are able to use them for good, she continues. In my example, what do you think you would do with EmGo, when you see the homeless person? she asks, not waiting for my answer. You really feel what they feel. You can see their pain and you understand. You truly understand. And you can help.

And it has no side effects? I ask, still unsure whether I am doing the right thing. The capsule starts glowing. I blink and look at it. Yes, it is giving off a subtle sheen coming from inside. I wonder what they put in these things, so they are able to mess with your neurons or connections or whatever. Nah, she says, that’s the amazing thing about it. You will want to take it again and again, promise you. She winks at me. Is she hiding something?

Okay, what the hell. There goes nothing. Or everything, I think, as I take the blue-red, not so harmless, all-promising capsule and swallow it in one gulp. How long does it need to take effect? I ask her. The effect is immediate, she replies. Let’s try it out! She takes me by the hand, pulling me out onto the street and we start walking. I can already feel the capsule working, I think, something is different, something is happening. I feel something, I say out loud. It’s amazing, right? she says. I can not only feel emotions around me, I can see them. I look around, people everywhere, showing their emotions as if writing them on big signs and carrying them around. A girl with an ice-cream in her hand is radiating satisfaction in orange-pinkish. A teenager, who is arguing with their mom about something, is giving off bright red sparks, shooting high into the sky. Isabella, walking briskly next to me, is glowing yellow-gold with pride and happiness. I look around. I can’t even begin to describe some of the colours that I see. Emotions are everywhere, but they’re not dangerous. They’re inviting. I don’t feel overwhelmed at all, I think. Why doesn’t everybody take this every day then? I know why, because they’re freaking expensive, these pills. I am lucky I know Isabella, because she brought some free samples. I already know that I will want to do this again.

After what feels like hours we arrive back at my house and head inside. I feel drowsy, like I have been high and am slowly coming down. What is the active ingredient anyway? I ask, looking at Isabella. She smiles, happy about my decision to take it and the experiences I made. Nothing, she replies. What do you mean, nothing?, I ask. Nothing but positive expectations, she says.

This story was originally written in English.

The paper

Hartmann, H., Forbes, P. A. G., Rütgen, M., & Lamm, C. (2022). Placebo analgesia reduces costly prosocial helping to lower another person’s pain. Psychological Science, 33(11), 1867–1881. Find more info about the first author here!

Connection between story and paper

This paper investigated whether we need our own pain processing system to understand and share the pain of others, and whether this, in turn, influences our helping behavior. One half of the participants in this study received a pill that was presented as a “strong painkiller” which supposedly reduced their pain (in reality everybody had received a placebo, so a sugar pill with no active pharmacological substance; this was the placebo group). The other half got nothing (this was the control group). Then all participants were asked to take decisions whether they wanted to put in physical effort to help a second participant feel less pain. This means, put in none of your own effort and the other person will get a few painful shocks, but put in some effort and you are able to reduce those shocks. The study showed that taking such a pill that you think reduces your own pain actually makes you help another person less often. However, this is only true when the moral urge to help is small, for example if you cannot actually help that much. When you can help the other person a lot, both groups helped equally often. And this effect of reduced own pain on helping behavior was influenced by how much empathy people felt for that other participant. The fictional short story paints a picture of a world where properly dealing with your emotions is as simple as taking a pill, even if that pill is a placebo. It aims to showcase the power of positive expectations, in other words, how our brain, body and mind react to believing in certain things, such as a treatment reducing pain or making us feel better.

What about you? Would you want to take such a pill?

The author

Helena has developed Science and Fiction and writes many of the stories herself. Her current research as an active scientist focuses on the behavioural and neural basis of pain, pain modulation and treatment expectations based on placebo and nocebo effects. She completed her PhD at the Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience Unit at the Institute for Psychology of Cognition, Emotion and Methods at the University of Vienna, where she investigated empathy and prosocial behaviour in the area of pain.

Dr. Helena Hartmann
Dr. Helena Hartmann
Neuroscientist, psychologist and science communicator (she/her/hers)