Posts Tagged ‘Kim Fromme’

The Effects of Alcohol

September 26, 2019

This post is based on content in Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcom Gladwell. Psychologists Claude Steele and Robert Josephs developed the myopia theory to explain the psychological effects of alcohol. What they mean by myopia is that alcohol’s principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision. In other words, “it creates a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion. Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background less significant. It makes short-term considerations loom large, and more cognitively demanding, longer-term considerations fade away.”

When we get drunk what happens to us is a function of the particular path the alcohol takes as it seeps through our brain tissue. The effects being in the frontal lobes that govern attention, motivation, planning, and learning. The first drink “dampens” activity in that region. We become a little dumber, and are less capable of handling competing complicated considerations. It hits the reward centers in the brain, the areas that produce euphoria, and gives them a little jolt. It affects the amygdala. One of the amygdala’s jobs is to tell us how to react to the world around us. Are we being threatened? Should we be afraid? Alcohol turns the amygdala down a notch. These effects are what produce myopia. We don’t have the brainpower to deal with more complex, long-term considerations. The pleasure of alcohol distracts us. Our neurological burglar alarm turns off. Alcohol finds its way to our cerebellum, at the very back of the brain, which is involved in balance and coordination.

Under certain very particular circumstances—if we drink a lot of alcohol very quickly—something else happens. Alcohol hits our hippocampi that are responsible for forming memories. At a blood-alcohol level of 0.08—the level threshold for intoxication—the hippocampi begin to struggle. When you wake up the morning after and remember meeting someone but cannot remember their name or the story they told you, that’s because the two shots of whiskey you drank in quick succession reached your hippocampi. The gaps get larger when you drink a little more and the gaps get larger to the point where you remember pieces of the evening but other details can be summoned only with great difficulty.

Aaron White of the National Institutes of Health is one of the world’s leading experts on blackouts. He says that there is no particular logic to what gets remembered and what doesn’t. He says, “Emotional salience doesn’t seem to have an impact on the likelihood that your hippocampus records something. What that means is you might, as a female, go to a party and might remember having a drink downstairs, but you don’t remember getting raped. But then you do remember getting the taxi.” At the next level—roughly around a blood-alcohol level of 0.15, the hippocampus simply shuts down entirely. White said, “In the true, pre blackout, there’s just nothing. Nothing to recall.”

Unfortunately, heavy drinkers today are drinking much more than heavy drinkers fifty years ago. Alcohol researcher Kim Fromme says “When you talk to today’s students they think that four or five drinks is just getting started. She says that the heavy binge-drinking category now routinely includes people who have had twenty drinks in a setting. Blackouts have become common. Aaron White surveyed a group of more than 700 students at Duke University. Over half the drinkers in this group had suffered a blackout at some point in their lives. 40% had a blackout in the previous year, and almost one in ten had had a blackout in the previous two weeks.

Unfortunately, white women, particularly, are also drinking heavily. For physiological reasons, this trend puts women at a greatly increased risk for blackouts. If an average male of average weight has eight drinks over four hours, he would end up with a blood alcohol level of 0.107. Although that’s too drunk to drive, it is still below the 0.15 level typically associated with blackouts. If a woman of average weight has eight drinks over four hours, she’s as a blood-alcohol level of 0.173. So she’s blacked out.