Cheers Mate! Alcohol in the Social Game
Alcohol seems to be in nearly every social event; but why? My labmates and I have often spent Friday nights at the local pub. As biomedical researchers, my friends and I are all aware that alcohol is toxic for our bodies. Yet we still drink our merry way into the night. We’re not the only ones who do this. Humans have the capacity to consume forms of alcohol for thousands of years at least and still enjoy it today.
So, what is it about alcohol that we’re attracted to?
It makes us feel less awkward
Despite humans being social animals, we still suffer a fair amount of social awkwardness. Whether it’s making small talk to strangers or attempting to not embarrass yourself in front of your boss, it’s there. You can thank your prefrontal cortex, the decision-making area of your brain, for that. It moderates your thoughts and actions, preventing inappropriate actions, like throwing burgers at strangers. But sometimes, you just want to unwind after a hard day’s work. For my friends, that usually means at least two pints of beer and maybe a Long Island Ice Tea cocktail.
If enough alcohol is consumed, it suppresses the control over emotions and feelings. Suddenly, you stop over thinking every word, gesture and look during a conversation. All reservations are out of the window. It’s liberating! Problem is that you become very impulsive, and situations can spiral out of control very rapidly.
It is a chemical addiction
Whenever you sip your favourite alcoholic beverage it sets off a cocktail of chemical messengers in your brain. The active ingredient of alcohol is ethanol, which is a depressant. It enhances the action of the chemical messenger, GABA, calms the nervous system. That’s probably how some people find alcohol relaxes them in social gatherings.
Yet at the same time, alcohol also increases noreadrenaline (or norepinephrine for those from the U.S.A). It stimulates feelings of excitement and arousal. Maybe that’s why some people are suddenly so keen to dance away in claustrophobic clubs.
On top of that, alcohol also enables a huge release of dopamine, rewarding your brain making you feel happy and ‘high’. One would think that being happy around people would be a good thing, Problem is that the happy feeling from alcohol quickly fades. So, what do you do? Buy another drink? Overload your brain with a chemical cocktail just to get through the night?
But ‘letting loose’ doesn’t require alcohol…or a pub
So, what if you’re a lightweight or don’t drink alcohol? Do you need an alcohol-induced chemical cocktail for your brain to effectively socialise?
Alcohol isn’t the only factor in socialising. A study of customers in UK pubs found that just gathering in one place increased people’s connectedness to the local community. Socialising in small community pubs and in small groups was shown to encourage whole group conversation. This increases people’s feelings of connectedness wellbeing and happiness. Just having a small place to get away from the stresses of work and life with a few others is enough. It doesn’t have to be a pub at all.
Now, I am partial to the occasional Corona, my favourite beer. But, the reality is that I go to the pub to chill with my friends and have a laugh. There’s no need to excessively drink and be absolutely wasted just to get along with people. Alcohol addiction is a serious issue, help is available. Socialising doesn’t come naturally to all of us. But, don’t rely on alcohol to relieve social anxiety for you.
So, chat, laugh and drink in moderation.