We need to be able to think clearly to be free

With the US celebrating its political independence and the UK the reopening of pubs tomorrow, July 4th, it is worth remembering that it is our capacity for clear thinking which underpins our personal freedom.

Alcohol reduces our ability to make good decisions, while our decision to consume this mind-numbing substance is often made on the basis of coercion or misguided expectations.

In many situations we may expect immediate penalties for not drinking, which can seem like a mandatory entry-ticket for full social participation.

And, once across our blood-brain barrier, alcohol influences our decisions in ways we can only be partially aware of while experiencing our own alcohol-influenced thoughts and feelings.

Inebriation slows our brain activity, so reducing our brain’s role in informing our actions. From the inside, however, things seem to speed up. Our fate is left more to luck.

The gamble can sometimes pay off, sometimes not. About two in every five prisoners says they were drunk when they committed the offence which led to their abrupt loss of freedom.

Learning difficulties
Alcohol also often triggers brain responses which make inebriation seem to have great significance, making us more inclined to repeat it. We cannot be relied on to realise.

Alcohol also increases anxiety, mood and interferes with sleep, while we commonly feel the opposite. So we can easily find ourselves spending undue resources on consuming alcohol.  

Heavy drinking can make our brains misfire sober, meaning we feel tense, forgetful and gloomy between sessions. Dementia and mental health problems are far more likely.

The discomfort of sobriety when alcohol dependent makes escape an ever-more attractive option. This is why we might spend our last few pennies on barely-drinkable budget brands.

Freedom is about more than the freedom to buy things. To be free we need an environment in which we are spared from harm, including damage to our mental capacity.

Commercial restrictions and timely and accurate information can help us avoid alcohol harm and in turn reducing our chance of other harmful errors.

Clarity before commerce
Our freedom to shop should not outweigh our freedom to think clearly. We would not champion our freedom to lock ourselves out of our own house, though it is among our freedoms.

A notice reminding us, say, to remember our keys before going out, or warning us of a blind bend are not oppressive. Similarly alcohol warnings are no infringement of our freedom.

Nor is it oppressive to withhold instruments used almost exclusively for self-harm. Minimum alcohol unit pricing, on trial in Scotland, may to be found to do exactly this.

Alcohol drinking can be pleasurable, but it also underlies many mistakes, small and big. Preventing these does not diminish our freedom to be spontaneous or take risks.

Measures to curtail heavy alcohol use can help share freedom’s benefits more widely. They are keys to greater freedom. ■

The case for an alcohol advertising cap

Limiting alcohol advertising spend could boost industry profits while testing the premise underlying our current approach.

Policy is often based on the assumption alcohol advertising is about battling for a share of a market of fixed size.

Cynics, of which I am one, doubt we are unmoved by the billions being spent on influencing our spending decisions.

Proving or disproving either case is nigh-on impossible, with the real world having too many complicating factors.

Accept the premise
With science offering no obvious way forward, the solution may lie taking the premise to its logical conclusion.

So, let’s say it is true, demand for alcohol is indeed immovable. It would mean nearly all advertising money was being wasted.

Most cash spent, say, promoting lager A over lager B, would be adding to the sector’s cost base for no extra income.

The route to higher shareholder returns can only lie in conducting this contest at lower cost.

Alcohol suppliers should, then, agree to cut their mostly fruitless marketing costs by agreeing a cap on advertising expenditure.

To maximise shareholder returns this cap would be best set as low as possible, allowing it to be returned as profit.

Guaranteed benefits 
There is no reason for shareholders to resist such a cap on wastage, unless the notion of having fixed market size is untrue.

A low adspend cap would also satisfy those doubting that it does not help boost overall alcohol consumption.

If the premise of current policy is right, alcohol sector’s profits will rise, if not, alcohol consumption will fall. 

Wherever the truth lies, someone would stand to benefit from putting this critical assumption to the test. ■

Alcohol and beyond with Alison Canavan

Supermodel, wellness guru and single mum Alison Canavan shares how her problematic relationship with alcohol intertwined with stellar international success and her longstanding Buddhist practice. She shares what she learned and what she has carried into her new alcohol-free life in LA. ■

Minimal drinking helps prepare for covid-19

Rejigging our alcohol consumption can help adapt to our current situation and prepare for the challenges ahead.

The easing of lockdowns is not the end or the beginning of the end. It is just, perhaps, the end of the beginning. 

The UK still faces the deepest depression for perhaps 300 years, according to the Bank of England.

The political futures currently proposed by the UK and elsewhere are far from certain to improve the outlook.

We can only respond to world events such as these as best we can, trying to minimise damage and hasten recovery.

We need to brace for lower income, unemployment, curtailed freedoms and thousands of premature deaths.

One way to be ready as we can be for hard times is to adopt healthy, cost-saving choices early, including low-risk drinking.

This simple suggestion is strongly advocated by the WHO, though precious few governments have given it airtime.

Alcohol use weakens our immune system and judgement, and our capacity to cope with emotional challenges.

We can use the tranquility many of us now have in abundance to do this. There may be other times for it, but not better ones.

We are now free of one enormous challenge faced by people trying to cut down drinking: social pressure.

The UK’s low-risk consistently drinking under 14 UK units (140ml) a week of alcohol is a reasonable target. 

Achieving this can help improve our better mental and physical health while slashing costs ahead of a downturn.

We can get help from our GP and from a wide range of organisations set up to support and assist.

Good news is set to be short supply. But, in its absence, we can at least celebrate and take the chance to act on good ideas. ■

Slovenia pioneers improv in youth education

Slovenia is streets ahead in taking improv drama back to its starting point as a teaching device for children. It has been a commonplace extracurricular school activity for nigh-on two decades. 

“It can help children who are not good at school, those who are introverted or anxious,” says Mistral Majer, the 31-year-old who now runs Slovenia’s High School Impro League (SILA), having herself joined a team at 14. 

There are now 20 teams practising weekly with the help of a SILA-trained mentor. Their head-to-head improv clashes are scored by both judges and audience. Another dozen teams are in “incubation” poised to join the fray. Thousands of children have taken part.

The league takes improv back close to its roots in the educational work of Viola Spolin, an actor who created around 200 improvisational theatre games for underprivileged immigrant children in Chicago in the 1940s and 50s.

Ms Majer says creating impromptu dramas develops problem-solving, listening, teamwork, public speaking, storytelling and self-confidence. Around 70% of improvisers in the league are female.

“You learn how to play different roles in life,” says dramatist Tomaz Lapajne, a veteran improviser. A player might play the role of a prime minister in one scene and a homeless person in the next. Public speaking classes, by contrast, focuses on taking a high status role.

Improv may help ease depression, anxiety and shyness. Its team ethos create social groups, interaction and trust which could counter isolation. SILA has worked to include children with special needs in a programme called “Play with me”.

As with jazz, improv’s musical inspiration, there is no one improv orthodoxy. There are nine in North America and Europe, according to Chicago-based improviser Jonathan Pitts. Despite differences most share the cooperative ethos of building on other players’ contributions, an approach boiled down to the phrase, “Yes, and…”.

Participants also need to tolerate failure, a fact of life in an ad hoc artform. “Failing is not bad,” says Ms Majer. Watching a practice session or show for more than a few minutes shows everyone fails, with experience telling mostly in an ability to recover.

The goal is not to learn to enjoy failing, says Shawn Kinley, a veteral Canadian improviser teaching a workshop in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana. Instead improvisers need to “fail well”, accepting failure and seeing its usefulness in learning.

It is not too late if we have already failed to learn these lessons in our youth, as many Slovenian have. Requiring only a room and a mentor, improv has become an attractive and affordable pastime and team-building exercise for professional teamworkers.

Medics have been encouraged to try improv as a way to roll with the unpredictability of their work lives. Teachers are encouraged to use improv skills to spice up their lessons and to teach it to students. We learn lessons better when they are linked to emotions, says Mr Lapajne.

And money makers like Google, PepsiCo, and McKinsey have seen the potential upsides of improv too, including sessions in some of their training. The big data company Palantir goes a step further making an improv handbook, “Impro”, required reading for new recruits.

There is money to be made from giving workshops, but Slovenia’s school league rejects a commercial model. There are no fees, to avoid financial barriers for less-well-off. Instead the modest costs are covered by grants from government youth programmes.

The league is competitive, despite success being underpinned by cooperation, flexibility and acceptance of failure. Improv’s unexpected twists often makes it funny, but doing this reliably typically relies more on playing it straight than on an individual’s wit.

As adults we now flip between ever more roles in both our workplaces and homes. It is perhaps high time we followed Slovenia’s example and gave future generations insight into this challenge as part of their school experience. ■

Journalism is valuable

Journalists provide a valuable service while being systematically starved of resources.

One might think this loose-knit clan was perfectly adapted to the information age, being dedicated to recycling hot air.

But, in fact, quite the reverse is true. Just at the point at which it seems journalists are most needed, near extinction beckons.

For generations they eked out a precarious living on the fringes of society, but few now manage even this.

The development of the internet exposed a weakness underlying their traditional way of life.

Journalists, like all others in modern society, are only able to live by turning their work into money.

They too need food, shelter, heat, light and clothing for themselves and their dependents.

Journalists, therefore, rely on people valuing and paying for the filtered and replenished air they offer.

But, surrounded by enormous billowing supplies of hot air, few wish to pay for more, no matter how clear and affordable it is.

Some think journalism appears by magic. Some talk of the devil. Some think journalists are secret millionaires.

The end result is many members of the journalist clan are endangered, making a tiny fraction of what they contribute.

Though journalists are widely, and sometimes understandably reviled, there seems likely to be a price to be paid for their loss. ■

Covid-19 shows life-saving policies are popular

The effort to control the covid-19 outbreak shows the public welcomes government action to protect life. Politicians might take note when formulating policies on alcohol, responsible for one in twenty deaths.

Billions of us have overnight willingly complied with often stringent laws curtailing our business and social lives, thanks to our clear understanding that doing so is saving millions of lives.

It seems reasonable to suggest that we would also gladly accept modest extra tax, advertising restrictions, and labelling and availability measures to cut millions of deaths, injury and suffering from alcohol consumption.

Far harsher restrictions are in place. Alcohol sales have been banned under lockdown laws in South Africa, Botswana, and parts of Thailand, Greenland and among a native group in Canada. The impact is uncertain.

Alcohol dependents will likely suffer the physical and mental health effects of withdrawal.Some have reportedly died as a result of “toddy” becoming hard to come by in India, largely by their own hand.

Providing support will be more challenging in coming months. Can Zoom support ever really replace a face-to-face meeting? Or might online even attract new people and offer more privacy?

Or will online help miss those who need it most? One former alcohol dependent said in a philcain.com discussion that being in covid-19 isolation with a stash of alcohol would have been her “happy place”.

Like it or not, we will find out some answers in the very near future. But our exceptional circumstances will also create exceptional statistics, full of “confounders”, making them incomparable with those before.

Road accidents in places where alcohol is suddenly off-limits, for example, are likely to drop sharply. But, then again, there is going to be hardly anyone on the road. So what will the numbers mean?

The first phase of the covid-19 outbreak has shown the public welcomes decisive government action to protect health and we will gladly accommodate them. 

As a species we are adaptable survivors. And we have now shown we welcome advice that helps us survive. We might also use this time to reflect and rethink our priorities and habits.

There is room for a glimmer of optimism we might make the best of this unusually bleak situation. ■

Improv acts fast and goes online

The physical distancing needed to combat covid-19 is prompting improv groups all over to go online to retain its boost to mood, imagination and social connection.

The changeover is itself improvised. Most are using Zoom, a conferencing package which can host and record up to 100 players for $14 a month. Many standard games can be adapted to the new medium.

Enthusiasts in North America, the UK, mainland Europe and elsewhere are all getting to grips with a sudden technology shift, swapping tips and finding out what works best to keep the show on the road.

Acting on-the-hoof almost invariably leads to the outrageous and absurd, as politicians have ably demonstrated, but improvising for on an amateur basis is enjoyable and rewarding. It is online as well as off.

Early online experiments with my own group have been modest so for. But they have revealed notable performances of Batman and Melania Trump and that it is still entertaining and inspiring.

Google, PepsiCo and McKinsey have accepted improv theatre classes can help pep-up employees’ communication skills and teamwork. And it seems likely to help our mental health and substance use..

Improv’s secret lies in risk and teamwork. If a teammate dries up we have to be ready to jump in and take over without knowing what it is we are going to do when the action restarts.

Accepting this is hard. I, for one, am far more used to holding back in the face of uncertainty. Settling for the first thought that comes to mind is very uncomfortable …or possibly I should say “anathema”?

But it also makes sense. If we were to abandon our teammates to the merciless spotlight, we too may soon find ourselves alone, helpless, blinking, mind blank, dry-mouthed, will to live leaking away.

Funny warm-up games are key to coming good with this, breaking down barriers to making a selfless save, while also helping with listening, timing, attention, spacial awareness and short-term memory.

So, before covid-19, as a bathtub walks to the wings, I managed a solo, bent second-class train ticket from Birmingham New Street to Liverpool. Though far from completely convincing, it passed inspection.

Working as a group we learn methods to create impromptu scenes, establishing characters, their relationships, a location and goal. The trick is to add and not subtract, the dictum being “Yes, and…”.

We often shy away from taking harmless risks in real life. So, doing it for fun is helpful, not least because more often than not it works out. And the chances of success increases with practice.

It also helps to learn it is not really a disaster when something does not work smoothly. And it can even be better. Yes, and… there is always a way back, typically thanks to timely assistance from our teammates.

Putting improv online at short notice is unlikely to go 100% smoothly. But, if improv teaches us anything, it is that it is worth cooperating to make the best of a difficult situation. ■

A coronavirus ethos can help with alcohol

The challenge of changing our behaviour to slow the spread of coronavirus offers valuable clues about how we all might help reduce the harms of alcohol.

There are those aspects of coronavirus aware behaviour adults must master alone, like washing our hands or the remarkably challenging feat of not touching our faces.

But the most difficult ones for coronavirus are the social ones: turning down invitations, spurning warm hugs, gleeful handshakes, high-fives and knuckle-bumps.

Reducing alcohol use can be a personal struggle too, with the urge to use it to sooth ourselves or lift our mood often heightened by withdrawal symptoms. But the social aspects are even harder to halt.

We might need to pooh-pooh a pub visit, if the environment is hard for us. We might need to say no to a drink or, maybe, explain our choices to people doing exactly the opposite.

It is awkward and difficult, all of it, particularly to begin with, but it is possible. We may miss our old habits, but we can grow fond of alternatives which serve the same purpose.

We can see why invitations have to be declined. And we can learn to greet one with namaste, or foot-bump, bow or alcohol-free beer, or whatever other hygienic greeting we can devise.

In both cases we are adaptable creatures able to combine science, flexibility, imagination and empathy to reduce the harm we do ourselves and to others.