By Greg B. Just a quick look through history will show us that some of the smartest people were also the most drunk. Recent history to points people who narrowly avoided, but still avoided, a nuclear war (Khrushchev and Kennedy, for examples), while more ancient history is speckled with famous philosophers and inventors (Plato’s symposium is a bunch of guys getting hammered and thinking, while Ben Franklin was notorious for drinking around Philly) or conqueror “Give me a woman who loves Beer, and I will conquer the world’ – Kaiser Wilhelm. We kind of take this as a fact at face value. Creative people tend to harbor some sort of desire for mind-altering states. But is there any evidence to suggest this may be true?
Well, it turns out there is. And while I am a bit loathe to reference an English study as something to extrapolate out to the general human population (pork pasties and mediocre bitters pass for food and drink there, remember that), a study was conducted. Essentially, subjects were classified on a 1-5 scale, randing from ‘very dull’ to ‘very bright’ in terms of their intelligence (yes, I’m sure these tests have flaws, but if there’s one thing Psychologists are good at, it’s finding and controlling for all sorts of extraneous variables. So, these tests are probably far more valid than most of us like to believe), and then tested the cohorts throughout life. While tests like this reveal valuable information on heritability of all sorts of disorders, identifying potential genetic components and the effects of particular lifestyle choices on physical or mental health, these data also indicated something very interesting. The more ‘intelligent’ a person was, the more they drank.
Now, before you hear this and run out to the bar, ordering as many beers as you can, remember a few things. First, this is a correlation. Second, this does not necessarily mean that drinking more will make you more intelligent. The opposite may be true. But what it does indicate is that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to drink, compared to your age, gender, income matched conspecifics. Great, so now we can all head to our favorite bars, pat ourselves on the backs and buy rounds of beer for our friends, backed by science, knowing that 10% of our monthly budget going to beer really is indicative of our intellect, and not an unhealthy preference for the bottle. But, I wanted to take a step back and think for a bit. Why would it be the case that more intelligent people drink more?
First, as a duly self-appointed representative and self-classified ‘very bright’ individual who also happens to enjoy booze, I feel it’s my job to speculate (any other self-appointed representatives, feel free to weigh in). I, personally, like the quote by George Jean Nathan stating that ‘I drink to make other people interesting’. Booze is one of those great equalizers. It softens the critical mind of some, letting them be less anxious and more tolerant of other people and topics who would normally be found to be irritating. For others who are, or who’s interests and attention is narrowly focused, it loosens inhibitions and allows them to be more creative. There’s a reason Plato and his philosopher buddies would sit around, drinking copious amounts of wine and philosophizing, and this is exactly it. There are also some (though widely unknown) neurological mechanisms at play here. While alcohol has well known behavioral effects as an anxiolytic and sedative substance, it appears to work globally around the brain, acting on a subtype of inhibitory receptor called the GABAa receptor. This receptor mediates quick acting inhibition on neurons, essentially making them less likely to fire an action potential, in terms of what we care about, less likely to work or pass along information. But what does this have to do with the topic of this post?
Plenty. It’s difficult not to anthropomorphize what is happening in the brain. Alcohol makes it’s merry way up there,where it enhances the ability of this receptor to shut down the cell it’s on, basically quieting the brain a bit, but notably areas in the prefrontal cortex, that control your ‘executive’ behaviors. What are these? Well, science has found that, in a nut shell, your prefrontal cortex inhibits you from doing all that stupid, random, offensive, distasteful, inappropriate behaviors that you normally don’t do. Damage this area, and you’re going to become a swearing, anti-social, socially inappropriate person… the kind of person people don’t want to hang out with. What does alcohol do? It inhibits this area from inhibiting your generally dumb ideas, letting you loosen up a bit, say things you might not normally have said, tolerate things you wouldn’t normally tolerate and make dares and decisions you would have thought were downright silly, when you were sober. Given these reasons, it seems obvious why intelligent people drink more!
We booze so we can tolerate everyone else. Where before we tend to take people’s responses at literal face value, now we can relax a bit, stop being so anal with semantics and let comments slide a bit. We change our normally myopic and narrow focus of the world into a (slightly more) global view, and perhaps we’ll even let others a few chances to express viewpoints that we don’t normally hold. Of course, when we sober up all this openness is gone, but hey, that’s why we drink more. To normalize ourselves into tolerating the normally droll and mundane conversations and viewpoints of the ‘normal’ or ‘dull’ people of the world (to use the original study’s terminology). While this seems to fly in the face of the stereotypes of drunk poor people, hey, it’s science. Maybe years ago those stereotypes were true, in the times when Oscar Wilde made his famous quote that ‘Working is the curse of the drinking class’. But today, times are changing. And backed with scientific longitudinal studies, we know the real answer. Intelligent people tend to drink more than normal or very ‘dull’ people.
So the next time you’re in a bar and you see someone sitting along, downing a bunch of beers or some whiskey, don’t think to yourself ‘typical, damn drunk Irish’. Think to yourself ‘ahh, an intelligent person is trying to make himself tolerable to the rest of the world!’ and go over and help him out. Buy him a shot. He may turn out to be a drunk bum, or the department chair of a research institute. Either way, you’re doing your part in helping humanity. As for me, I think I’ll relax and have another beer.