I think therefore I am drunk

We will never know the name of the first human who thought that it would be wheeze to consume the juice of fermented fruit. Nor we do know when it would have been. Definite evidence of the preparation of alcoholic drinks dies not surface until around 8000 BC after humans discovered the joys of agriculture.  In Uruk, the principal city of Sumer brewing was practiced on a massive scale. Drinking wherever it takes place is fundamentally a social activity. We tend to drink in socially, integrative, egalitarian environments which serve to foster social bonding. There is a universal nexus with celebration; alcohol is an essential element of festivity.

Since it first appeared alcohol has been credited with magical powers. Now in Britain alcohol is said to make us violent, anti-social obnoxious, promiscuous, and much more. The press rails against the culture of binge drinking. What substance is capable of doing this to us?  The substance at which is the chemical soul of all alcoholic drinks is ethanol, a colourless and highly volatile liquid. It is classified as a depressant and it effects on the drinker vary in accordance with the quantity consumed. In sufficient doses, alcohol impairs our coordination, reaction times, muscle control, short-term memory, ability to speak clearly and general cognitive abilities. In very high doses it can be fatal.

How does alcohol affect behaviour? There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink. Anthropologists argue that the effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol. In this view the cross-cultural study of alcohol is like a massive natural experiment on a global scale. The reaction of Homo Sapiens to this substance, ethanol has produced results that vary enormously across our planet. In some societies, the UK being one, alcohol is associated with violent and anti-social behaviour, while in others, such as the Mediterranean, drinking appears to take place in an atmosphere of relative   peace and harmony. The Yuruna Indians in South America consume copious amounts of moonshine without losing their inhibitions. In an anthropological survey of 46 societies, a link between alcohol and violence was only found in one fifth. In their landmark 1969 book Drunken Comportment the anthropologists MacAndrew and Edgerton drew this conclusion:

Over the course of socialization, people learn about drunkenness what their society “knows” about drunkenness; and, accepting and acting upon the understandings thus imparted to them, they become the living confirmation of their society’s teachings.”

It is not just scientists who are challenging assumptions about how alcohol affects us. Psychologists refer to the think-drink effect, the observation that behaviour is more closely related to perceived alcohol consumption than it is to actual consumption. In a series of ingenious studies in the 1970s and ’80s, psychologists at the University of Washington in Seattle led by Alan Marlatt put more than 300 students into a simulated bar-room with mirrors, music and the classic pine bar. The psychologists organised a double blind study.

25% were given a vodka-tonic and were told that it contained alcohol. 

25% were given a placebo but told that it contained alcohol

25% were given a non alcoholic drink and were told that it didn’t contain alcohol.

25% were given alcohol but were told that their drink contained no alcohol

The drinks had to look and taste the same.  The vodka and tonic was mixed in the ratio 1 to 5, to prevent the participants from recognising the alcohol by the taste. And to make doubly sure, they received a dose of mouth-spray before drinking. There was an electronic alcometer, but it had been rigged to show the students what they believed they had been drinking The students typically downed five drinks in a period of one or two hours.

The studies found that people who thought they were drinking alcohol behaved exactly as they expected to when drunk. Marlatt could find no significant difference between those who consumed alcohol and those who didn’t. Men who believed that they had been drinking alcohol became less anxious in social situations even when they had been drinking placebos. Women, by contrast, became more anxious. Men became more aggressive when they were drinking only tonic but thought that it contained vodka. When the situation was reversed they become relatively less aggressive even though they were actually imbibing vodka. Men also became more sexually aroused when they believed they have been drinking. Women also reported an increase in libido, but curiously, a measure of their vaginal blood flow showed that they were actually becoming less physically aroused.

The social anthropologist Kate Fox has argued that we could substitute coffee for alcohol and produce similar results:

If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem – a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands.I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee. I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six “units”) of coffee “can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour”, and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so.I could legitimately base many of my scary coffee-awareness warnings on the known effects of caffeine, and I could easily make these sound like a recipe for disaster, or at least for disinhibition and public disorder. It would not take long for my dire warnings to create the beliefs and expectations that would make them self-fulfilling prophecies. This may sound like a science fiction story, but it is precisely what our misguided alcohol-education programmes have done.

I think Fox does overstate the case. Nonetheless I am intrigued by the interaction between the very real physiological effects of alcohol and the suggestibility of the human mind. However, if you are stopped by the police on suspicion of drunk driving, I really don’t think it would be a good idea to cite studies suggesting that drunkenness is socially constructed.


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