I live in London, and sometimes it feels like the city runs on coffee and alcohol. It’s relatively obvious why we drink coffee. It offers bursts of energy and alertness to help us think and work, and we don’t find that desirably bitter taste elsewhere easily. But our reasons for drinking alcohol are more complex. It’s not that alcohol as such tastes particularly good, though it comes in various tasty forms; and while we might explain it away as unwinding after work, taking the edge off, making social life more fun, or having a good time, the real reasons are much deeper. Here I offer four.
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.
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.
“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:
“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.
Jonathan Rowson is a philosopher, writer, and chess Grandmaster. He is co-founder and director of Perspectiva, a research organization in London that examines the relationship between systems, souls, and society in cultural understanding and public policy. He is an Open Society Fellow and a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey. His next book The Moves that Matter, A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2019. You can follow him @Jonathan_Rowson
(*Most of this post originally appeared in response to a BBC television documentary in 2012, here*)