Why you really just can’t help yourself.
“People make bad decisions when high and blame it on alcohol…First of all, drinking alcohol was the bad decision. Grow up” — Arpith Kulkarni
You know you’ve been there before.
You’ve just woke up and are now experiencing a panic attack when we thinking back to all the stupid things you did and said the night before and wonder what in the world could’ve possessed you to go off the deep end like that.
You felt like we were mostly in control while drinking, taking water breaks between each drink to ensure you didn’t get too tipsy and do anything crazy.
You told yourself that you would make sure to stay away from that cute new co-worker from marketing because your company has a strict policy on fraternization.
So now, why are you kicking yourself for remembering how you found yourself engaged in a long conversation with her and feel like you may have said a few things that were outside of the scope of normal “work” conversation.
You can’t remember exactly what was said, but you do remember a few distinct times that she looked at you with a mix of humor and surprise and then walked away in a manner that suggested she was just going to let it go since she could tell that you were in a state of impairment.
You know you probably said something that crossed the line but wasn’t quite sure what it was and are now fearful if you’re going to be in trouble come Monday morning when it all shakes out.
Having been there more than a few times, I know this feeling of WTF that comes when thinking back to WHY I would say or do something so unusually like me and putting my career or life in a compromising position.
The reality, however, is that when you decide to drink more than the daily recommended minimum and/or binge drink, the chances of you doing something that most wouldn’t consider a good decision are increased dramatically because of the science of how alcohol affects your mind.
Norepinephrine and excitement/arousal
While you told yourself that you should stay as far away from your new marketing co-worker as possible, when you started drinking, a chemical named norepinephrine increased dramatically in your brain and made this a tad bit harder than under normal circumstances.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a stimulant in the body and generally increases one’s feelings of arousal and excitement. Naturally, our body releases this chemical when it perceives that a stressful event has occurred.
This is one of the reasons that most people have a greater desire to have sex while drinking and are more inclined to talk to someone to which they are attracted.
This also directly speaks to why many people get a bolt of energy when they first start drinking and begin to feel excited at the possibilities of the night. This typically is what one is looking for in regards to having fun for the night, which is why many people see alcohol so helpful in getting the party “started.”
While this state seems to be exactly what you would be looking for when pursuing a fun night out with the crew, it can be a bit dangerous when coupled with situations that could be considered sexual.
Especially for males.
In a 2006 study in which 25 male subjects were sexually aroused and then asked to answer a series of questions related to their decision-making as it related to procuring sex, there was a distinct result that their arousal was seen as an…
“…amplifier of sorts. Activities that are not perceived as arousing when young males are not sexually aroused become sexually charge and attractive when they are, and those activities that are attractive even when not aroused become more attractive under the influence of arousal…”
One interpretation of this could be that ideas that seem a bit far-fetched and risky in regards to obtaining sex become more appealing when one is aroused, which could result in individuals be willing to say or do things that they wouldn’t normally do if not under the influence of the added psychological arousal.
Prefrontal cortex and decision making
By this time, most people are aware of the importance of the prefrontal cortex to our lives. Its most important function is to help us make what is known as executive functions.
Among these are planning, judgment, anticipation, and perhaps the most important of all: decision-making.
From various studies, anyone with damage to the prefrontal cortex demonstrated distinct impairments and prolonged deliberation in their ability to plan and attention shift, as well as an increased propensity to make riskier decisions based on the circumstances at hand.
Alcohol directly affects this region of the brain through alteration of what is known as your NMDA receptors. These receptors are very important to the synaptic transmission of our central nervous system. Alcohol inhibits the normal function of this in our prefrontal cortex, thus leading to impaired executive functions.
What most of us recognize this as is the more we drink, the riskier our decisions tend to be over time. This is why walking up and telling someone you love them at the beginning of the night seems foolish but makes absolute sense to you by the end of the night…glad that I didn’t listen to this voice a few times.
The truly scary thing about this that it doesn’t only relate to decision-making in the short term but could translate into impaired decision-making ability over the long term if one isn’t careful.
In various studies, individuals who binge-drink over long periods of time were found to have done enough significant damage to their prefrontal cortex that this impairment of decision-making persisted even when this person was no longer under the influence.
This effect is even more pronounced if the subjects experienced significant binge drinking during adolescence and could extend into their person’s adulthood.
This could explain why that one friend in high school was always willing to do such risky things as a teenager and then seem to never really grow up as time progressed.
This could also relate to why heaving drinking at a young age is so dangerous, as one’s decision-making ability is more susceptible to permanent damage than later in life.
This could create a debilitating cycle in that the more you drink, the more your prefrontal cortex and executive decision-making are impaired, and the more the choice of drinking sounds like a good decision.
Over time, this could lead to the permanent shrinkage of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, and it will be more difficult for you to realize that the decision to not drink is actually the right one — something that chronic alcoholics know all too well.
Glutamate and memory function
Lastly, one of the best things to ensure we learn from our decision and don’t make the same mistake twice is the ability to analyze the events that led to a decision, our previous summation of those events that led to our choice, and the assessment of the outcome as being positive or negative.
This leads to the last reason that we tend to make very poor decisions when we’re drunk — we can quite remember WHY we made the decision in the first place.
Due to alcohol effects on your memory, individuals often experience what is known as temporary anterograde amnesia, or what is known to most of us as getting “blackout” drunk.
In all transparency, neuroscientists are not 100 percent sure what causes blackouts completely.
They do, however, know that it is related to your brain’s synaptic connections in your hippocampus and the activity of what is known as your glutamate receptors.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that is known to increase brain activity and energy levels. It is extremely vital to your ability to create new memories. Alcohol slows down the release of glutamate, subsequently slowing down your brain’s path to functioning properly.
The impairment makes it challenging for us to remember things that occurred during these times and thus makes it more difficult to assess our decision-making after the fact.
This, therefore, more likely increases the chances that we will then make the same poor decision if put in the same situation again.
Alcohol and good decision-making seem to go together like oil and water.
There are a number of scientific reasons why you probably don’t do your best thinking under the influence, so it’s probably best not to try to make any major life decision under it.
And while no one can promise that the decisions you make while not inebriated will be that much better, at least you’ll remember them to hopefully make better ones in the future.