Drunk Is Near

Malcom Gladwell talks about how drunks act very differently in different cultures.  If you remember that sex is near, love is far, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn the key:

If you are good-looking and the world agrees that you are good-looking, drinking doesn’t make you think you’re even better-looking.  Drinking only makes you feel you’re better-looking if you think you’re good-looking and the world doesn’t agree.  Alcohol is also commonly believed to reduce anxiety.  … Put a stressed out drinker in front of an exciting football game, and he’ll forget his troubles.  But put him in quiet bar somewhere, all by himself, and he’ll grow more anxious. …

We’ve misread the effects of alcohol on the brain.  Its principle effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision.  It causes, they write, “a state of short-sightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion.”

Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear.  … The drinker is … at the mercy of whatever is in front of him. …. Psychologists …went into a series of bars and made the patrons .. imagine that they had met an attractive person … ended up in bed – only to discover neither of them had a condom.  The subjects were then ask to respond on a scale of one (very unlikely) to nine (very likely) to … “I would have sex.”  … Drunk people came in at 5.36. … Sober people came in at 3.91.  … But [they] went back to the bars and stamped the hands of some of the patrons with the phrase “AIDS kills.”  Drinkers with the hand stamp were slightly less likely than the sober people to want to have sex in that situation.

So do we drink to make ourselves think more nearly, and so bond more closely to those around us?  Or is it only about showing that our bodies are strong enough to withstand chemical overdoses?  And why wouldn’t we have evolved to think just as nearly as was useful to think?

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  • andrew

    interesting stuff about drink making you see your present situation as a continuing situation (disproportionate to the actual reality of the situation)

    certainly puts a lot of things in perspective. i’ve got a long term drink problem and last year i was off drink for 4 months, but found i became socially isolated. friends of mine who have given up drink for a period of time have found the same results.

    i think drinking is perhaps a social habit that’s embedded in our culture (i’m scottish and we drink a lot here, but i doubt things are much different in the states) and warps everything around it.

    my brother lives in greece, and they hardly drink at all. when he goes out with the boys over there the object of the evening is to play pool. when he goes out with the boys back here the object of the evening is to get drunk

    that said, the exuberance of being with friends is greatly enhanced when you’re all drinking, and the loneliness of being on your own is greatly enhanced when you’re sitting on your own drinking

    i find there’s nothing quite like having my own subjective experiences validated by scholarly intellectuals, who presumably have time-tested means of discovering objective truths

    how wonderful, i think i’ll have another drink

    • Violet

      Yes, there is a lot of social pressure.

      One solution could be join your friends but drink something nonalcoholic. At least here it is possible to order mixed drinks without alcohol. They look like the alcoholic versions (-> less stigma), are cheaper and taste better 🙂

  • People’s — and indeed hominids’ — relationship with alcohol is a really complicated thing, if only because these substances have been around for so long, and because unlike many other hallucinogens and psychotropic substances, alcohol in historically available forms was relatively safe. An awful lot has been studied on the matter. While long term health effects are real (omitting any possible benefits or second order effects, 1/2 liter of wine contributes 1 micromort to risk), they have become more severe with the introduction of an assembly-line workforce, and with the automobile, and the obsession with temperance prosecuted by some women’s groups have demonized it. Basically, drinking has been pushed into dark, urban corners, where people can walk home or talk public transport, and who have flexible work hours. Remember: The Constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote was passed at the same time as Prohibition. Indeed, one was politically dependent upon the other. (See S.Jacoby, Freethinkers.) Reliance upon alcohol as a substitute for the failure of satisfying basic human needs is probably old, and degrees of intemperance may be an indicator of social disconnect with animal needs.

  • Sohaib Hasan

    This leads me to think of marijuana as far. Think about it…all your thoughts move to an extreme far mode. We think about everything in extremely abstract terms. We start speculating on the meaning of pure math, but put a problem in front of our face and it is unintelligible. We think extremely complex thoughts about social interaction, but put a stoner in front of a group of new people and they will act like bumbling fools., etc.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      Are you really thinking extremely complex thoughts, or do you simply think your thoughts are extremely complex while high? Have you tried writing any of them down or dictating to a friend?

      • I’ve tried integrating while on mushrooms once. I would constantly forget what I’m doing and stare at the pretty grid lines. IIRC, when I later checked my calculations, they were all wrong, with lots of misspellings.

      • tim

        I suspect it depends on whether your thoughts are ordinarily complex. Carl Sagan has a nice essay about his marijuana use in which he credits the use of pot as the inspiration for a number of useful insights, and addresses the notion that complex thoughts while high turn into meaningless tripe the next day. It’s worth a read.

        There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day.

      • Sohaib Hasan

        I think I should have put complex in quotations marks. By “complex” i really mean very far-reaching, all-encompasing type thoughts where you break down a phenomenon into a small set of rules. For example, I once decided while I was high that my mothers behavior was like that of a robot. Sounds ridiculous. But it made perfect sense at the time. At the same time I have thought of, what I believe to be, some good insights as well. The point is that we shift to an extreme far mode. I wish I could be more articulate about this. Maybe I should smoke a bowl haha.

      • Sohaib Hasan

        Forgot to address your other question. I have written quite a bit when I have been high. It is hit or miss. Sometimes the things I have written are actually interesting. It is all speculation of course, but sometimes it looks insightful to me at least. Other times it will be so rambling that it becomes incoherent and other times it is just complete nonsense. For example, I have, a number of times, gone through my google reader blogs while stoned. One trend that I notice is that I tend to “like” and “share” a lot more things and add more comments to a greater number of them. My blogs include many nerdy blogs (like this one). I tend to think they are more profound when I am high than I do when I follow up on them the next day. However, I also notice that of the ones that I shared while high, when I revisit them, I have more insights and interesting comments the next day too. Again, it is usually in the direction of extending a hypothesis into other territories or generalizing further etc. Far mode.

      • Joe

        I have on several occasions used the time to write out instructions or advice for myself. When sober I don’t think the advice doesn’t make sense. It can be hard to read because it is unflinching. I hadn’t thought of it is “far” but in certain respects that may be a first approximation — it is the distance of me from you, applied to the self, which allows honest assessment, rather than the distance of now from later, which we normally use to fool ourselves. Echoing the other reply quoting from Sagan, it’s not that the advice doesn’t make sense, it’s that it is coming from a perspective which the “sober” mind doesn’t take easily.

  • mtc

    Drinking is fun, drunk tonight is near, hungover tomorrow is far. If we thought as nearly as drunks do, we wouldn’t last long for obvious reasons. But occasionally it’s good to think near for the bonding, signaling, reduced anxiety, etc. And it’s fun.

  • Psychohistorian

    Or is it only about showing that our bodies are strong enough to withstand chemical overdoses?

    Not going to lie; it seems like such failed insight rather undermines your credibility in assessing human motives in all social interaction.

    • Buck Farmer

      Drinking among males in some cultures emphasizes the ability to consume copious quantities of alcohol without collapsing.

      That said…I think the ritual is more to ensure even and deep drunkness than to sort out winners from losers. I say this because I don’t think those that can’t hold their liquour are excluded from the group in the future unless they get violent.

      Still, on the surface, there is an association between physical fortitude and throwing back a ton of booze.

    • bcg

      Calling this a “failed insight” makes me think you’ve never drank in a group of men before.

      • Psychohistorian

        The claim was, “it is only about.” If the claim was, “it is sometimes about,” or “for some people, it is only about,” I would not have taken issue with it.

    • I’ve heard that as the explanation for why that Aztecs used alcohol enemas. Now that’s extreme.

  • Buck Farmer

    I think to understand the reason it’s persisted in the culture has to do with context.

    Socially-approved drinking is drinking with friends, with food, at celebrations.

    Socially-disapproved drinking is drinking when sad, drinking when angry, drinking when alone.

    The socially-approved version uses alcohol as a means of emphasizing already existing bonds of reciprocity and group-membership. During a Chinese New Year banquet it is common for people to almost compete in out-toasting each other. During a wedding drinking is matched with friendly words and stories about the bride and groom.

    By pairing these positive experiences with a near-salience-inducing drug it helps us look only at the superficial positive aspects of the experience and ignore the underlying far-logic of the entire enterprise. When you’re drunk you don’t believe people are being nice to you and giving you food because they want your help in the future, want to improve their status, or want to avoid your future wrath. You believe they genuinely feel whatever they immediately are expressing.

    You can make basically the same argument for why socially-disapproved contexts are disapproved of. They are damaging for society, they make loneliness, anger, sadness, low-confidence more salient. They make you less likely to cooperate, less likely to help others, more likely to damage or destroy things.

    This is also why cunning businessmen will do negotiations over drinks. If the teeth of the contract are well-hidden, you’re less inclined to look for them past the rosy future your counterpart has painted while handing you your next shot.

    Next objection…what about the countervailing forces? Surely society wants some far-sighted, deep-seeing individuals? Surely individuals prefer not to be duped by their tribe? Why aren’t we all smashed all the time?

    Arguably, this is why people don’t drink at work, don’t drink at lunch (in the Anglophone world) or before noon…this is also why people that drink very rarely at all will still have a glass of champagne at a group-bonding ritual like a wedding.

  • tim

    “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world. -C.S. Lewis

  • Newerspeak

    We drink socially to diminish our ability to lie to our associates about who we are. It builds trust.

    If you get roaring drunk with your maybe-enemy and the two of you have a great time, you’re probably safe relaxing your guard a bit. If he’d been carrying a grudge against you, he would have acted on it when he was inebriated and less able to suppress, ignore, or explain away whatever it was about you that set him off.

    Tyler blogged a paper on this not long ago, I think.

  • Drawbacks

    I’ve found if I’m dozing off while drunk, that the usual hypnagogic images seem somehow far off in the distance. Perhaps this squares with the immediate looming larger for the inebriated.

  • “And why wouldn’t we have evolved to think just as nearly as was useful to think?”

    Maybe we have. Our brains keep in near/far balance by using emotional rewards and punishments. Could it be that the process of making us think nearly tends to be more reward-focused (pleasure), and the process of making us think far is more punishment-focused (anxiety)? If so, then maybe we are always in a state where we would be happier if we could get ourselves to think more nearly, but our brains won’t let us unless we hotwire them by getting drunk.

  • Joe

    A quote from the letters of Charles Bukowski (possible paraphrasing since it doesn’t seem to be online):

    “drinking is just another way of thinking… by drinking I get to have two lives instead of one”.

    Alcohol does make it easier to forget one’s (“far”) troubles, but this effect is amplified by the rituals and framing of “drinking”. When life is divided by habit or custom into “drinking” and “non-drinking” intervals, pouring a drink signals that one is entering that other world for a while.

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