Seriously, why do we drink alcohol? Jonathan Rowson

Blog post   •  Feb 21, 2012 15:53 GMT

Alastair Campbell’s Panorama documentary on Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics was a refreshing attempt to draw attention to the complexity of our alcohol problem. The programme revealed the full range of alcohol consumption patterns, from ritualistic social drinking in working class pubs to professionals quaffing wine like it was water, often alone at home. Campbell also shared the story of his own battles with drink, and made passing references to some of the policies that influence the supply of alcohol.

But what about demand? Throughout the documentary, not once was there any penetrating attempt to make sense of exactly why people drink. It’s not just about unwinding after work, socialising, or having a good tie. To quote the man himself, these explanations are bog-standard.

With a national audience looking for insight, this was a missed opportunity to deepen the discussion. Campbell could have called upon at least four useful perspectives that we should be more widely aware of.

First, neuroscience tells us that we drink to reduce associations in our mind. Ethanol, the psychoactive ingredient of alcohol, impairs communication between neurons by weakening the molecules in the walls that separate them, such that electrical signals are not sent as normal and associations between ideas do not emerge as readily. That might sound like a bad thing, but such associations are the basis for our continuous and strenuous efforts to make sense of the world, a burden we could do without. Alcohol typically elevates mood because with fewer associations to bother us, we start living less in our heads, and more in the here and now.

What this means is a bit shocking. Not only do we drink to get drunk, but we get drunk to justify behaviour that is not actually caused by drink at all! 

Secondly, and relatedly, psychology suggests we drink to escape the self. When we succeed in this venture we feel great, with less narcissistic chattering and relatively unmediated connection to the people and world around us. But of course alcohol can also make us think only of our selves, leaving us heavy, lost in thought, and disconnected from the world. The reason one of these two things happen, rather than both, is that alcohol causes cognitive narrowing, making us less nimble with our attention. With less flexibility, we tend to focus our reduced cognitive resources on whatever is most salient to us at the time, and ignore almost everything else.

Third, anthropology suggests we drink to allow ourselves to break taboos. However, we should be clear about what is caused by ethanol and what is caused by culture. Anthropologist Kate Fox, supported by a huge body of cross-cultural evidence, argues that while the physiological effects mentioned above are undeniable, the assumptions we make about the impact of such effects should be contested.

Drinking does not make you outspoken, promiscuous, aggressive or rude, and nor need it make you lose control of your behaviour more generally. Such things happen in the UK, but they are self-fulfilling, and happen because of what we collectively expect alcohol to do to us. As Fox puts it: “When people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.” The problems of drinking-related anti-social behaviour in Britain are therefore about cultural conceptions of what drunkenness means, not what alcohol does.

What this means is a bit shocking. Not only do we drink to get drunk, but we get drunk to justify behaviour that is not actually caused by drink at all! And we do this because we have an ‘ambivalent drinking culture’ where we view alcohol as morally significant, rather than an ‘integrated drinking culture’, where alcohol is morally neutral.

Fourthly, spirituality tells us that we drink to glimpse unity and transcendence. Whatever you think of the the Alcoholics Anonymous process it places spirituality at the heart because it recognises that the compulsion to drink is a perverted spiritual need. By weakening self-consciousness and relaxing the central nervous system, drinking gives a glimpse of transcendence and serves as a kind of secular spiritual experience. The centrality of this link was indicated by William James over a century ago in his classic text On the Varieties of Religious Experience:

“The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. It is in fact the great exciter of the YES function in man…”

For anybody who enjoys a drink, I imagine that much is plausible, but as always James saw deeper:

In modern language I think he means something like this: It’s such a pity that we draw the wrong conclusions from the pleasures of being slightly drunk.

“It is part of the deeper mystery and tragedy of life that whiffs and gleams of something that we immediately recognise as excellent should be vouchsafed to so many of us only in the fleeting earlier phases of what in its totality is so degrading a poisoning. The drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness, and our total opinion of it must find its place in our opinion of the larger whole.”

In modern language I think he means something like this: It’s such a pity that we draw the wrong conclusions from the pleasures of being slightly drunk.

The tragedy James alludes to is that when we get this periodic glimpse of being present, at ease with the world, and available for other people, we wrongly think that drinking more will heighten the sensation.  Instead, we should ask ourselves more fundamental questions about how we might live our lives, in order to experience such bliss all the time.