Alcohol and the Brain
Tom finishes his business, zips up his pants, and flushes the toilet. I told Matt that I could make it to the restroom on my own, he thinks smugly to himself. He turns on the faucet to wash his hands when, suddenly, it hits him: he doesn’t actually recall walking to the restroom. Tom remembers assuring Matt that he could take care of himself, and he remembers standing from his seat in the living room, but he simply cannot recall the trip through the kitchen, down the hall, and into the restroom. Laughing as he admits to himself that Matt may have been right after all, Tom cautiously heads out to the party.
Lapses in consciousness or memory, known as blackouts, are a symptom of heavy alcohol consumption.
Whether mild—as in Tom’s example—or severe, blackouts are so common a symptom of drinking that many people feel that they are a tolerable consequence of inebriation, particularly in social settings like parties. In fact, consumption of alcohol has several detrimental effects on brain function that many people are willing to tolerate for the substance’s positive effects on the reward centers of the brain. To be responsible drinkers, though, we must understand what alcohol does to our brains, so that we can make informed decisions about our actions after we’ve consumed alcohol.
While it usually takes a fair amount of alcohol to affect short-term memory or cause blackouts, much smaller amounts of alcohol can still impair us to a degree that makes it unsafe to engage in behaviors, like driving, which are not particularly safe even with fully functional brains. Some of the detrimental effects that can get us into life threatening trouble:
- Slow reaction times. When the difference between avoiding a rear-end collision with a braking vehicle and a crash can depend on the milliseconds it takes for your foot to depress the brake after seeing the hazard, any reduction in reaction times can be fatal.
- Drowsiness. Not only can this effect of alcohol consumption make you miss out on the life of the party, it can result in serious harm or death for yourself and others should you fall asleep while operating any sort of heavy machinery.
- Lowered inhibitions. In certain settings, usually social gatherings, this is actually a desired effect of alcohol consumption, a means to overcome whatever awkwardness we may feel when thrust into a function where mingling is expected. The danger is that alcohol lowers inhibitions indiscriminately, so a reasonable voice of caution may be suppressed or ignored right along with whatever trepidation one might feel about making small talk. This can lead us to take dangerous risks that we might not take while sober.
It is worth remembering that these effects occur simultaneously, compounding the danger we place ourselves and others in if we choose to behave irresponsibly while under the influence of alcohol.
Regular, heavy consumption of alcohol adds an additional stress to the acute symptoms discussed so far: a change in brain chemistry that makes a person physically dependent on alcohol. This dependency can become very powerful, difficult to counteract, and withdrawal symptoms can include seizures and even death. Considering the other physiological effects of long-term alcohol abuse—effects like liver disease—an overpowering need to consume alcohol is no small problem.
Ultimately, we must each weigh the positive effects against the negative each time we choose to drink; however, the important thing to remember is that there are negative side effects. With that in mind, you should be equipped to make responsible decisions even as you enjoy the fun effects of drinking.