Exploring the science behind alcohol is a fascinating journey, revealing interlocking ideas which together can help inform our wider outlook.
It helps us see how our shared beliefs shape our choices and perceptions; How our genetics guide us; How we can misread our own thoughts and feelings; The limitations of our will; How we might better harness the power of the placebo; The sources of sustained happiness; Our need for feelings of social connection. And, in all of these, the astonishing, unifying complexity of our brains.
Alcohol’s effects show us how the highest level of our brain function—our self-awareness, our capacity to make choices and to imagine—are entirely physical. Our mental and physical health are not separate entities, no matter how separate they may sometimes feel. They are part of the same thing.
Our mental lives do not lie on a lofty plane, aloof, disconnected from the rest of us. Alcohol shows as clearly as any PE lesson we are inextricably plumbed into our bodies and the physical world we inhabit. This is not simply a philosophical curiosity, because embracing it helps safeguard our well-being.
We are completely reliant on a teeming back-and-forth of nervous signals. It maintains our physical being and provides substance for our thoughts and feelings. At the core of it is the coordinating whirl of our brain.
Learning from disconnect
We can never fully separate any part of this system from another, but some substances can create a change in our brain activity which comes close.
Alcohol and other household psycho-actives, like caffeine and nicotine, are no different from illicit ones in this, bypassing the usual channels and altering our brain function regardless.
Of the three commonplace mind-alterers, alcohol’s effect is the biggest by far. We have evolved to be resilient to alcohol, which is naturally abundant. After a brief one-off exposure our brains return to their previous patterns in hours.
Extended binging and other heavy use, however, might make us become forgetful, tense, grumpy or disorganised between bouts. If these disrupt us enough, we may wonder if we are alcohol dependent. More likely we discount them as annoying personal quirks.
We tend to be rather oblivious to the ebb and flow of our thoughts and feelings, as we wrestle with the management of our day-to-day affairs.
We work mostly from the plush, top level, like a complacent CEO surveying their charge from the boardroom of a skyscraper. This fat-cat perspective, though cosy, is perhaps one source of our disconnect.
We can see for miles around but can easily overlook the problems being faced by our middle-management and on the mental shop floor. Research, however, can help us identify when it might be worth stepping in.
Some of the effects can become apparent at the top level, that of “executive functions”, a catch-all which covers our ability to allocate our mental resources, plan and adapt to change.
As dependent drinkers we tend to underperform in them. As binge drinkers we may also become forgetful, bothered by extraneous thoughts or easily distracted. Even at lower intake we may notice more memory lapses.
As teenagers, when our brains are still growing, it seem we are more vulnerable still. Drinking then also increases our likelihood of drinking to a level which queers our executive functions later.
There is no agreed safe alcohol intake to guarantees full mental functioning, although guidelines take it into account. A studypublished only this week linked long-term moderate drinking to mental decline.
Alcohol is, as ever, the motherlode for the ironist because we often drink to soothe our worries, only to sap the abilities we most need to overcome them. This is an irony far too bitter to savour.
The final irony is far sweeter, however: Alcohol helps us that our mental life is not aloof and disconnected, but fully part of our physical being, understanding we can use to live life to the full without it.
Recovery from the most of the bothersome effects typically takes between three months and a year, but reports suggest significant improvements long after. Alcohol’s most important lessons are some compensation. ■