Why do people like to be drunk? Here’s how alcohol affects the brain.
At first, the strangers didn’t smile much. But as they drank the cranberry vodka, their expressions changed. Not only did they smile more, but they caught each other’s smiles and spoke more consecutively. And they shared more than what the researchers called “golden moments” when all three strangers smiled as one.
“It feels like the group really comes together and I think they’re part of that social, boozy experience,” he said Michael Sayettedirector of the Alcohol and Smoking Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh who co-authored the study.
What is pleasant in a drunken state?
Alcohol disinhibits the brain
Drinking is socially accepted, but “alcohol is like any other drug,” it said Jody Gilman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of neuroscience at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Addiction Medicine. “It affects the brain.”
Ethanol, the extremely simple chemical compound that gives alcoholic beverages their buzz, penetrates the cells of our body and brain within minutes of consumption. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of alcohol on the brain. “It has such widespread effects in the brain,” he said Jessica Weafer, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Unlike other drugs that affect specific regions of the brain or act on specific receptors, “alcohol just goes all over the brain,” making it difficult to study, she said.
It is common knowledge that alcohol is a depressant, which means that it generally suppresses neural activity in the brain. It enhances the effects of brain chemicals that inhibit neural activity – GABA and glycine – by acting on the same receptors that these neurotransmitters bind to. At the same time, alcohol inhibits the effects of excitatory brain chemicals, creating a double whammy of reduced brain activity.
As most drinkers may know, alcohol has a biphasic effect: initially and in small doses, it produces a buzz where we feel stimulated and disinhibited as if we could dance or talk forever, before drowsiness takes over.
This rise and fall of our spirit corresponds to the rise and fall of blood alcohol levels.
A look into a drunken brain
To see what happens in the drunken brain, the researchers gave willing participants alcohol via IV lines while they lay inside an fMRI neuroimaging scanner.
Alcohol can cause us to become disinhibited damping activity in parts of our frontal cortex, which is important for executive control functions such as inhibiting behaviors we don’t want to do. By lowering our inhibitions, alcohol makes us feel more stimulated.
It also hums pleasantly releases dopamine and increases activity in the striatum, a key brain region associated with rewarding stimuli. Weafer and her colleagues found that neural activity in the striatum corresponded to how intoxicated the participants felt.
The participants were given alcohol intravenously, but they still “enjoy it, even though they’re just lying in the scanner,” Weafer said.
Alcohol also affects the emotional centers in the brain. IN one studyalcohol dampened neural responses in the amygdala to negative facial expressions, which may be why booze can serve as a social lubricant, said Gilman, who led the study.
A little liquid courage can help us become less sensitive to rejection or social anxiety. But it can also lead to bar fights or inappropriate behavior when someone has had too much to drink.
The social context is also important
The intoxicating power of alcohol is not only pharmacological.
“The funny thing about brains is that they like to hang out with other brains,” Sayette said. “How the brain looks when you drink varies dramatically, depending on whether you’re alone or in a social situation.”
Being with others in a social setting can be intoxicating in itself, and alcohol seems to amplify the good feelings. It also signals to others that we’re letting our hair down, which doesn’t require an intoxicating dose to see mood effects, Sayette said.
He points to a study in the 1970s who asked how people felt after coming to the lab and drinking alone or in a group. When people drank alone, they reported more physiological effects like dizziness than mood changes. But when they drank in a social context, they talked more about the feeling of euphoria rather than the effects on the body.
“It’s not distilled down to additional dopamine release,” Sayette said. “That’s too simple.”
How to enjoy, responsibly
Here’s what researchers recommend when going on a night out:
Have a plan. How much will you drink? How will you get home? These decisions are easier to make if you are not disinhibited.
Eat food in advance. This slows down the metabolism of alcohol. And drink lots of water.
Know your limits. Each person has a different level of tolerance. Slurred speech or loss of coordination can be warning signs that you need to slow down. “You have to know when you feel like you’ve lost control of your drinking,” Gilman said.
Know why you drink. If you drink to numb negative feelings or despite the negative consequences, this could be a sign to reach out to someone for help.
“It’s certainly possible to be a responsible drinker,” Gilman said. “I think a lot of people can have a drink during the holidays and be perfectly fine.”
Do you have questions about human behavior or neuroscience? E-mail [email protected] and maybe we will answer it in a future column.