Sweet sweet liquor eases the pain

The entry below was originally written back on September 6, 2002. Some of the references will be dated. Still, I think it's one of the best things I've ever written, and I'm happy to reproduce it now.

William Burton, the sanest blogger I've yet encountered, has this to say for himself:

Doc Nebula made the point in an email that alcohol is unique in its ability to turn the mind off and let us stop thinking for a while and that this makes it uniquely attractive to people who want to drown their sorrows. He goes on to add:

Personally, I don't think there's anything out there, no matter what we legalize, that will replace booze, because I don't think there's anything out there that represses the higher reasoning center as well as booze does. Booze also lowers inhibitions, which people really like a lot. Of course, inhibitions are the very warp and woof of civilized behavior, but people get really sick of being civilized. Which is probably why as soon as a particular culture starts accruing a lot of laws and customs and taboos, they also learn to distill hard liquor.

He could very well be right. Maybe alcohol does have some unique property that makes it more attractive as an intoxicant than anything else around. If this is true, then we can't assume that legalization would cause drug addictions in the same numbers as we have alcoholics (and it would be pretty safe to assume that it wouldn't).

Now, you can already figure that I deeply admire anyone who quotes me in public and then says agreeable things afterward. However, I deeply admired William Burton and his brilliant fucking blog from the moment I first encountered it, and you should too. And since attention from a great blog requires at least more than the usual bare minimum slack-off effort I put into these things, I actually did some research. To wit:

http://www.howstuffworks.com/alcohol4.htm actually tells us the following:

Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex is the highest portion of the brain. The cortex processes information from your senses, does your "thought" processing and consciousness (in combination with a structure called the basal ganglia), initiates most voluntary muscle movements and influences lower-order brain centers. In the cortex, alcohol does the following:

Depresses the behavioral inhibitory centers - The person becomes more talkative, more self-confident and less socially inhibited.

Slows down the processing of information from the senses - The person has trouble seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting; also, the threshold for pain is raised.

Inhibits thought processes - The person does not use good judgement or think clearly.

Alcohol also affects the cerebellum, the limbic system, the hypothalamus, and the pituitary gland, but all that basically goes to physical coordination and sexual function. What I’m interested in here is what alcohol does to a person’s mental peformance, as opposed to what the various other common and popular recreational drugs do. Does what I offhandedly threw at William, and he so cordially reproduced, hold water? Let’s find out:

http://www.nida.nih.gov/MOM/TG/momtg-marijuana.html tells us:

THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, binds to and activates specific receptors, known as cannabinoid receptors.

By activating these receptors, THC interferes with the normal functioning of the cerebellum, the part of the brain most responsible for balance, posture, and coordination of movement.

The hippocampus, which is involved with memory formation, also contains many cannabinoid receptors.

Marijuana also affects receptors in brain areas and structures responsible for sensory perception. Marijuana interferes with the receiving of sensory messages (for example, touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell) in the cerebral cortex. … Marijuana activates cannabinoid receptors in these various areas of the cerebrum and results in the brain misinterpreting the nerve impulses from the different sense organs.

Interesting. http://www.nida.nih.gov/MOM/TG/momtg-opiates.html tells us:

Two important effects produced by opiates, such as morphine, are pleasure (or reward) and pain relief. The brain itself also produces substances known as endorphins that activate the opiate receptors. Research indicates that endorphins are involved in many things, including respiration, nausea, vomiting, pain modulation, and hormonal regulation.

Within the reward system, the morphine activates opiate receptors in the VTA, nucleus accumbens, and cerebral cortex (refer to the Introduction for information on the reward system). Research suggests that stimulation of opiate receptors by morphine results in feelings of reward and activates the pleasure circuit by causing greater amounts of dopamine to be released within the nucleus accumbens. This causes an intense euphoria, or rush, that lasts only briefly and is followed by a few hours of a relaxed, contented state. This excessive release of dopamine and stimulation of the reward system can lead to addiction.

Opiates also act directly on the respiratory center in the brainstem, where they cause a slowdown in activity. This results in a decrease in breathing rate. Excessive amounts of an opiate, like heroin, can cause the respiratory centers to shut down breathing altogether. When someone overdoses on heroin, it is the action of heroin in the brainstem respiratory centers that can cause the person to stop breathing and die.

Following up on this, we come to http://www.nida.nih.gov/MOM/TG/momtg-hallucinogens.html , which tells us:

Because serotonin has a role in many of the brain's functions, activation of its receptors by LSD produces widespread effects, including rapid emotional swings, and altered perceptions, and if taken in a large enough dose, delusions and visual hallucinations.

PCP, which is not a true hallucinogen, can affect many neurotransmitter systems. It interferes with the functioning of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is found in neurons throughout the brain. Like many other drugs, it also causes dopamine to be released from neurons into the synapse.

And then, there’s http://www.nida.nih.gov/MOM/TG/momtg-stimulants.html from which we learn:

Cocaine has also been found to specifically affect the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, which are involved in aspects of memory and learning. The amygdala has been linked to emotional aspects of memory [about methamphetemines] It produces its effects by causing dopamine and norepinephrine to be released into the synapse in several areas of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortex, and the striatum, a brain area involved in movement.

And last but not least, let’s not leave out the only drug in the world that may be nearly as prevalently abused (at least, in the last five or six centuries), as alcohol, by turning to http://www.nida.nih.gov/MOM/TG/momtg-nicotine.html for the following fun facts:

Regular nicotine use causes changes in both the number of cholinergic receptors and the sensitivity of these receptors to nicotine and acetylcholine. … Recently, research has shown that nicotine also stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain's pleasure circuit... This release of dopamine is similar to that seen for other drugs of abuse, such as heroin and cocaine, and is thought to underlie the pleasurable sensations experienced by many smokers.

Okay. Now what does all that mean? (And bear in mind, I’m a temporary clerical worker, a wannabe writer, and a former English major who dropped out, so my analysis/summation may be flawed):

Well, it seems to mean that all that stuff I tossed off to William based on just vague general bullshit impressions I had floating around in my brain, was actually correct. To wit:

Every drug that is readily abused affects the brain in some way, and since the cerebral cortex is extremely important to our day to day functioning as sentient human beings, and the brain is very complex, many of them seem to impact the functioning of the cerebral cortex in some way. However, from what I can see, above, only alcohol goes immediately to work on the cerebral cortext, and only alcohol shuts it down in a nearly comprehensive fashion. Marijuana specifically affects sensory interpreters in the cerebral cortext, causing perceptual data to become confused ("oh, man, I can hear your shirt, turn it down"), and the opiates cause endorphins and dopamine (pleasure chemicals) to be generated throughout the brain, including in the cerebral cortext. Yet alcohol is the only drug listed here that goes right to work with a big ol' hammer on our center of higher reasoning and judgement.

Now let’s think about that for a second. I’m well aware that I have a tendency to make sweeping statements often only backed up by my own vague notions gathered from a lifetime spent reading trash and watching movies/TV. I have no degrees, have written no learned papers (nor have I read very frickin’ many). Nonetheless, it seems to me to be inarguable that alcohol, not only through its nearly universal presence among every currently extant human culture, but through very nearly every historically recorded human culture as well, has to be the most universally manufactured and (ab)used intoxicant chemical known to man.

I mean, yes, nicotine, hell, right up through 1980, nicotine was being inhaled by very nearly every American man, woman, and child in the history of the nation, and its use world wide is extraordinary and extensive. But since the health impacts of nicotine have been discovered, nicotine use has declined drastically (at least, in U.S. markets). Not so for alcohol. Alcohol is now just as much a cultural fixture as it has ever been. More studies have been done and public awareness as to alcohol addiction, and so called alcohol abuse, have been raised to unprecedented heights, but still, the overwhelming majority of adults, and in industrialized areas outside the U.S., children, imbibe some alcohol, usually daily. And I put a ‘so called’ in front of the phrase 'alcohol abuse' not because I don’t believe in the idea that alcohol can be abused, but because I’m not at all convinced that in point of fact, there is a proper use for alcohol (other than as a cleaner, I mean). It’s a toxin, after all. I'm not at all sure we're supposed to be ingesting it for any healthy, rational purpose.

But let’s look at the other stuff. Heroin is popular, certainly, but I think I’m safe in saying that less than a majority of the world’s population takes heroin, and less than a majority would, even if it were legal and freely available on every streetcorner. The same is true for pretty much every other recreational drug on the list. Make all that stuff legal and as freely available as chocolate and still, I think less than half the population would ever take any of it.

On the other hand, even in places where alcohol is illegal, a VAST majority of the population ingests it, generally on a daily basis.

Colin Wilson, in his amazing tome A Criminal History of Mankind provides horrific descriptions, taken from actual contemporary accounts, of what happened when the first distilled liquor, gin, was introduced to Europe and eventually made its way to England, back in the 17th Century.

By 1688, the English working classes were alcohol starved. The consumption of gin rose steadily, from half a million gallons around 1690 to three and a half million by 1727 and -- by the middle of the century -- to nineteen million gallons.

The result was a crime wave... crimes to obtain money for gin became as common as crimes to obtain money for drugs in our own society. Quite suddenly, England was virtually in a state of war with criminals...

Henry Fielding reckoned that a hundred thousand people in London alone lived mainly on gin. Another observer stood outside a gin palace for three hours one evening and counted 1,411 people going in and out. These 'palaces' usually consisted of a shed, full of barrels of gin; the customers merely came to buy a pennysworth of gin, which explains the enormous number. Whole families, including father, mother, and children then sat on the pavement and drank themselves unconscious; with gin at a penny a quart, it was not difficult.

Fielding remarked that 'gin disqualifies them from any honest means to acquire it, at the same time that it removes sense of fear and shame and emboldens them to commit every wicked and dangerous enterprise'...

In short, gin very nearly destroyed the entire economy and almost completely wrecked the culture of Europe and England. Every member of the lower, working classes – men, women, children – exposed to the effects of gin did nothing but drink until they passed out. Upon regaining consciousness, they’d stagger out, do whatever they had to in order to secure enough money to buy more gin, then go back to one of the gin-stalls that flourished in nearly every doorway where a distillery or a distribution stand could be set up, buy more gin, and again, drink themselves into a stupor.

The accounts from the times are hellish. Adults sold themselves, or stole, or murdered, to get money. Parents sold their children, or rented them out as prostitutes; children themselves, once exposed to the distilled liquor, willingly sold themselves to raise gin money. It was, in fact, the gin induced crime frenzy that led to the establishment of the world's first organized police force, the Bow Street Runners (predecessors to England's 'bobbies'), organized in 1753 by the above quoted novelist and former magistrate Henry Fielding.

Opium, on the other hand, was once much more commonly abused than it is now, but it never attained the universality of gin, when gin was first introduced to the European populations. There were once opium dens in every slum in Europe and America, but only a minority of the poor and the disadvantaged tried opium, or became addicted to it. Each distillation/concentration of opium, and each new discovery as to yet another form of recreational mind altering substance, has certainly seen some popularity and success among the minority of the human population that craves to have its reality substantially altered, if only temporarily… but only alcohol has swept the world, and become the daily drug of choice for the vast majority.

I’m convinced that alcohol is, for some reason, THE drug of choice for humanity, and has been ever since mankind first started forming social units larger than an immediate family.

Many drugs, at least, in their raw, natural state, are far easier to manufacture than alcohol (some natural hallucinogens can simply be ingested as found in nature and provide quite a satisfactory ‘high’). And mankind has always sought, for whatever reason, to flee everyday consciousness. Yet despite the fact that various natural substances can provide more powerful effects than alcohol, for far less effort, mankind has always fermented pretty much anything that would ferment, into alcohol.

Looking, for the moment, at mind altering chemicals in general, they seem to me to break down into three broad categories:

The ones that make you happy, like opiates, which intensely stimulate the pleasure centers and chemicals manufactured by the brain, like dopamine and endorphins;

The ones that make you crazy, like marijuana (mildly), LSD, and PCP, by deranging your sensory perceptions and creating hallucinations;

And the one that makes you stupid: alcohol.

The rest of them affect various different areas of the brain chemistry, as well as the body, and in very specific ways, some of them impact the cerebral cortext. But alcohol is the only one that simply shuts down the cerebral cortext… the higher the dosage of alcohol, the quicker and more comprehensively you stop thinking, you lose your capacity for making rational judgements, for analysis, for logic.

The inevitable conclusion seems to be that less than a majority of humans desire artificial happiness enough to use drugs to get there (although I should caution that a whole lot of modern people ingest chocolate and caffein on a daily basis, so apparently we all, at least to some minor extent, have a desire to self medicate), and similarly, less than a majority are so bored with the world they perceive on a daily basis that they seek to derange their senses through chemicals. But a vast, vast majority wants to dull their perceptions of the world, and numb their higher reasoning faculties, and lower their own inhibitions. In short, the vast majority of sentient beings on this planet, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with their sentience. They don’t like to think. They need, or at least, greatly desire, to turn off their human brains on a daily basis, for at least a limited period of time.

Most other drugs either change the way the brain functions, or, in fact, amplify certain of its functions unnecessarily. Alcohol seems to be the only drug that shuts the higher reasoning centers of the brain down… and alcohol is the drug that nearly every human being who has ever walked the earth has used, pretty much as often as they can get away with it, for as far back as our history runs.

Even in Islamic countries, where violations of most other holy laws can lead to swift and barbarically cruel punishments, surreptitious alcohol consumption is mostly winked at. (This last observation may be false; it’s based entirely on perceptions I’ve gotten from various media sources, mostly fictional. If it’s not true – if getting caught drinking a beer in Saudi Arabia will get an Islamic man dragged out in the street and stoned to death, and if, in fact, the majority of the population of Islam-ruled countries live their day to day lives entirely or largely without any alcohol at all – then I apologize, and in fact, will readily admit that my thesis must somehow be wrong. Or, worse, since I consider Arabic/Islamic culture to be mostly pretty nuts, I might even have to admit that alcohol is a good thing and has some beneficial social effect. But until someone presents me with actual facts and figures from a reputable source, I’m going to assume that there is as thriving a black market for booze in Islamic nations as there was in America under Prohibition.)

The upshot seems to be: most people simply don’t like to think, and if it were possible for them to do so and still function within society, they’d just stop doing it.

Which, come to think of it, may explain how demagogues like Rush Limbaugh manage to become so popular.

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