At Warwick University the Behavioural Science group, which is spread over three different departments (WBS, WMG and Psychology), likes to meet up for drinks. These meet-ups are called beerhavioural science.
Actual science is hardly discussed at these meet-ups, but they did get me thinking. I have written an article about substance addiction and have managed alcohol as one of its culprits. But why not just dive into the effects of alcohol on behaviour and the brain? Let’s do some beerhavioural science!
Beer and Behaviour. Do you feel more “like yourself” when drinking? Although the term is slightly misleading, you will feel less constrained, as your inhibitions are being drank away. So what you are is yourself, but with less inhibitions. Some of these inhibitions can be purely social norm based. It is unsurprising that being drunk can lead to socially unacceptable statements and behaviours.
Another thing you might have noticed is that after your 4th tequila it is has become increasingly difficult to impress people with your eloquence of speech, or the ninja-like swiftness of your (dance) moves. Don’t worry, only sober people are likely to realise this, and since you are no longer sober, it might not even have occurred to you. Also, after downing another couple of Jager bombs given to you by a really nice girl, you feel yourself abnormally attracted to a person you are sure you have never seen before.
The morning after your head hurts, your mouth feels like the Sahara desert and you have realised you are not alone. The person you were sure you had never seen before turned out to be the same nice girl who bought you booze earlier and who, as a matter of fact, you have known for 3 years. Ooh alcohol…..
Beer, Body and Brain. Now the scenario above might seem a bit intense for some, and like an average Tuesday for others. Whatever your style, let’s look at why our movements, speech and vision become less than optimal by looking into our brain.
Alcohol reaches the brain in approximately 5 to 10 minutes after its consumption. The effect it has on the brain depends on how much you have drunk and your resulting blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The BAC depends on a number of factors as well, of course including how much you’ve already had, your gender and your body weight (mainly fat distribution).
Let me break this down for you: consumption of 10 g of alcohol by a 80 kg man results in a peak BAC of 0.02%, whereas 10 g of alcohol by a 65 kg woman results in a peak BAC of 0.03%. BACs between 0.01% and 0.03% lead to frontal lobe sedation, induced relaxation, impaired judgement, and increased heart rate. The frontal lope is mostly used for planning, comprehension, impulse inhibition and general higher cognitive processes. Frontal lobe sedation is the reason you feel that you are more “yourself,” or realistically: you feel less impulse inhibited and feel that you can no longer understand social norms and why certain things are less appropriate than others.
You might think that so far, none of it sounds that bad, especially not looking at the example. What is the harm in a bit of frontal lobe sedation? Let’s get back to the example. The woman in the example has a 50% higher BAC than the man. Both only have BACs between 0.02% and 0.03%, sounds quite okay right? Given that 0.04-0.06% BAC can already lead to unconsciousness, shock, coma or death (cardiac or respiratory failure), this is serious stuff.
When BACs rise, the speech and vision centres in the midbrain are affected. This means both your speech and vision have just started slurring. At even higher concentrations of alcohol, your speech will be affected even more and you can find yourself unable to speak. This is because the cells in the cerebellum responsible for coordination of voluntary muscles are affected (including those used in speech). However, these cells are also used for eye-hand coordination and limb movements. Not only are you becoming increasingly unable to verbally indicate what you are doing, you can barely see what you are doing and you barely have any control over what you are doing. This is still at 0.03% BAC.
At very high BACs, and I’m talking 0.04% and up, which really doesn’t sound that high, you pass out. The conscious brain is completely subdued. If you want to reach even higher BACs, but please don’t, you can anesthetize the deepest brain centres that control breathing and heartbeat. If your brain fails to control your breathing and heart functioning, you die.
When people say that alcohol is their “poison of choice,” they are not too far off. Alcohol literally knocks out brain functioning, one higher-order function at a time. As a result, its frequent consumption, especially at higher BAC levels is not recommended.
Alcohol has the worst effects on brains that are still developing. As I have outlined in my article about addiction, the body is able to cope with and adapt to several foreign substances and chemically induced states. A still developing brain is able to adapt to continuous alcohol (ab)use as well. The first brain functions to suffer are the higher-order cognitions in the frontal lobe, as they need the least BAC to become altered. Long-term alcohol abuse on a young brain can therefore lead to issues with planning, time-keeping, impulse control, aggression and stability of personality traits. If the alcohol abuse is severe enough to go beyond processes of higher-order cognition and affect speech comprehension and production, but also vision and movement. You can experience inability to speak properly, inability to comprehend words, inability to see certain movements (too fast, too small) or the inability to move certain limbs fast enough, in as far a range as they should be able to move, or at all. No one said neurological adaptation was going to be beneficial…
Don’t think because you are over 25 years, you are now immune to the effects of alcohol on the brain. As we age our brain starts a process of decay, sounds harsh, but is scientifically sound. You might have noticed how shit you feel after a night out drinking. That is decay too. Alcohol abuse on the older brain speeds up its decay process. So if you want to get most out of your personal computer upstairs, you might want to stop drowning it.
This article is not meant to scare, it’s not exactly a PSA and I don’t mean to preach either. I am a student in higher education, alcohol isn’t exactly a foreign substance to me either. But there is enough scientific evidence out there that just says: calm down. There is some serious stuff going on here.
As a result, ask yourself: why are you drinking? If it’s as a coping mechanism, seek help, because it won’t fix your problems now and it will just make them worse in the long-term.