Alcohol in one’s hands is a double-edged sword: in moderate amounts, it can help social interactions, while in high doses, it affects cognitive abilities so badly that one cannot function well in a social setting.
Why does moderate alcohol consumption cause one to feel euphoric and hence, in many cases, more open to social interactions? The answer lies in the brain: the alcohol binds to a particular receptor in the brain, thereby enhancing the activity of a natural brain chemical known as GABA.
The effect alcohol exerts on us depends on the amount consumed and on the position of the GABA receptors in the brain. The alcohol stimulates GABA to cause an increase in the levels of the brain reward chemical, dopamine: this is what provides mild euphoria one feels when one has just started drinking. What further contributes to this state of ‘well-being’ is the impairment of brain circuits linked with anxiety – yet another effect GABA receptors generate when subjected to alcohol.
If the dose of alcohol increases, other brain circuits are deactivated: for instance, those that control fear. This explains why heavily drunk people feel like they could do anything without the fear of consequences. What makes it worse in these circumstances is the inability to calculate risks. No wonder drunk individuals indulge in activities they would not otherwise have done. Consequently, alcohol might facilitate social interactions: people trust more easily, are more generous (temporarily), and more empathic. This might sometimes help people to address others, while it can also lead to gross social blunders.
However, the other side of the spectrum cannot be denied either: heavy drinking leads to aggressive behaviour. How does alcohol cause one to become violent? This reaction is more complex. According to findings, this is mostly limited to people who are already aggressive by nature.
Also, while alcohol might seem to encourage social interactions, it can ultimately lead to one’s downfall in very unpleasant ways: it impacts negatively on one’s ability to understand others’ perspective, motivations, and intentions because cognition itself is affected. Brain circuits linking parts of the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and temporal parietal junction, which are known to manage cognition, are compromised. Very high alcohol intake can even damage these circuits so badly that some drunk people can seem to resemble patients suffering from dementia.
Even interpreting someone’s facial expressions becomes tricky. Often enough, drunk people mistake negative expressions to be happy ones. Sad and angry faces are even more challenging to identify.
It is to be noted that mostly, these effects are reversible after the hangover. However, chronic drinking can potentially cause brain damage, and irreversible cognitive impairments.