Altered states – alcohol


When we are looking at consciousness, we are also looking at altered states of consciousness. One of the most common altered state is the result of consuming alcohol. Psyblog has an interesting look at the effects of alcohol (here) especially its effect on attention. Here is part of the posting.

According to a growing body of evidence collected over the last three or more decades, people’s Jekyll and Hyde behaviour while drinking can be understood by a simple idea which has some intriguing ramifications.

The alcohol myopia model says that drink makes our attentional system short-sighted and the more we drink, the more short-sighted it becomes. With more alcohol our brains become less and less able to process peripheral cues and more focused on what is right in front of us. It’s this balance between what is right in front of us and what we don’t notice around the edges that determines how alcohol affects us in different situations.

Here are a few effects which imbibers will recognise immediately:

  • An ego boost: when people drink, they often feel better about themselves. This may be because the attentional short-sightedness induced by alcohol makes all our shortcomings float away and so we feel closer to our ideal selves. This is probably one of the reasons it is so potentially addictive, it is self-actualisation in bottle form.

  • Real worries can get worse: if we’ve had a bad day and we sit quietly with a drink, alcohol can make it worse because all the peripheral cues which are potential distractors are cut out and all we see are our problems.

  • Pleasure in the moment: the flip-side of this attentional focus is that if, while drinking, we are doing something enjoyable, we find it easier to ignore any nagging doubts or stray worries wandering through our minds. We can be totally in the moment listening to music, watching sports or talking with a good friend.

  • In the zone: it’s even possible that for some types of task it may increase performance as we let go of our insecurities. Perhaps that’s why so many writers wrote with a glass of whisky at their side.

Tentatively, I think consciousness is essentially no more than a model of reality, a focus of attention and a working memory operating together. Of course, this may sound simple, but it isn’t – there are many processes that each could be and many ways they could interact.

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