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Biology 202
1999 Final Web Reports
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"Did I do that?"

Evelyn Rodrigo

"Did I do that?" This is the morning-after question. Many drunken people claim not being able to remember events that happened while they were intoxicated. Whether this claim is true or not is controversial. Whether a crime was committed intentionally or unintentionally has great bearing on the decision of a jury in finding a person guilty of a crime and/or on the judge's choice of punishment. You might have heard of husbands apologizing to their wives the day after they've beaten them. Their apology might sound something like, "I'm so sorry. I did not mean to hurt you, I swear!" Does alcohol have the capability to make a person forget? Can a person be unaware of his surroundings and yet still be able to interact with it? More importantly, can alcohol change a person's personality enough that it would cause him to do things that he normally would not do (unintentional)? If brain dictates behavior, then the question to ask is "Can alcohol really have this effect on the human brain?"

More people consume alcohol now than in the earlier days. This is because alcohol is easy to obtain and is not considered as a dangerous drug by most people (1). Alcohol is linked in a variety of violent behaviors. According to the British Medical Association, 60-70% of homicides, 75% of injuries from stabbing, 70% of beatings, and 50% of fights and domestic abuse that occur are alcohol-related. "Alcohol [was] present in half of all [the crimes]" committed, according to police superintendents. Furthermore, Jack Straw in 1997 declared, "every year, there are almost 1.5 million victims of violent attacks committed by people under the influence of a drink (excluding domestic violence)." There are also more offenders of domestic violence under the influence of alcohol than there are under the influence of other drugs. (2) The link between violence and alcohol consumption could be seen as a cause or an excuse. If alcohol can in fact change a person's behavior or can make a person unaware of what he's doing then alcohol consumption could be seen as a cause for the percentage of crimes presented above. On the other hand, how can we be sure that alcohol was not consumed to have an excuse for a premeditated crime?

Ethyl alcohol, which is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks, enters the bloodstream through the walls of the gastrointestinal tract, mostly from the walls of the stomach and of the small intestines. Once ethyl alcohol enters the bloodstream, it passes through the brain and bathes the brain cells. This is how alcohol "kill" brain cells and damages the brain. (5) Different levels of alcohol in the blood have different effects on the behavior of a person; however, these effects are not predictable. At low levels, the inhibitory centers are usually suppressed and there is a "false sense of increased confidence and a feeling of well being." The depressing effects of alcohol on the brain may relax a person but equally likely, may make a person irritable, mistrusting, and very sensitive. (3) (4) (5) (6) While feeling relaxed is generally good for a person, it carries negative effects when a person gets in trouble from being overly relaxed. For example, there are cases in which women are raped as a result of being too comfortable with the men they drink with. Studies show that a substantial percentage of victims of violent crimes were intoxicated at the time of their assault (2). Offenders may also commit their crimes as a result of this false confidence and lack of anxiety. When alcohol causes a person to be irritable and mistrusting, this usually results in aggressive behavior. It is common for intoxicated people to misinterpret things that they hear and see and this causes them to attack at the slightest provocation. (3) (4) In this case, alcohol causes something to happen.

In slightly higher blood alcohol levels (0.300 - 0.399g%), there are studies that show amnesia and blackouts as possible effects of alcohol consumption. (3) (7) A person who has a blood alcohol level of 0.300g% and above is considered an alcoholic (3). Blackouts are episodes in which an intoxicated person is able to interact with his society without remembering anything about it after the effects of alcohol has worn off. (7)

It is generally accepted that drunken people do not act normally and usually society blame unacceptable acts committed by drunken people to their state of intoxication. This attitude, along with the possibility of using the phrase "I don't remember" as an excuse, allows a person to use alcohol as a pre-text for a premeditated crime.

So if there is a possibility of losing the "self" while under the influence of alcohol, why don't alcoholics, who do not like the effects of alcohol, just stop drinking? While drinking is a matter of personal choice, it is not easy for an alcoholic to will himself out of drinking. Alcoholism is considered to be a disease (8) (9) even though it does not act like one because the person who has it usually denies its existence (10). Some say that this denial is part of the disease in which the alcoholic devices plans to hide the fact that his excessive alcohol consumption is the cause for his problems. This constant denial makes it harder for an alcoholic to recover because he does not recognize that there is a problem to be solved. (8) Another reason that makes alcoholism so hard to treat, according to Dr. Douglas Gelowitz, Ph.D., is that "ETOH is a highly non-specific compound having no specific receptor type and affecting every major known neurotransmitter system within the brain." (11) An alcoholic becomes addicted to alcohol that he cannot control his urges of drinking or the amount that he consumes (7). It is almost like having obsessive-compulsive disorder where the obsession is alcohol and the compulsive behavior is consuming lots of alcohol. This same behavior is observed in a study with rats in which the animals did anything to get alcohol, even if harm would be inflicted on them as a result. (12) If alcoholism is left untreated, it can take the life of the person. It is also hard for an alcoholic to stop drinking because the withdrawal symptoms experienced afterwards can also be fatal. (8) (9) Alcoholism has two types. Type I alcoholism is common in both males and females. People who are type I alcoholics rarely engage in violent acts and feel guilt when they do. They are incapable of preventing themselves from drinking alcohol and this causes them problems. Type II alcoholism is more common in men than in women. People with type II alcoholism are often violent and anti-social. They are capable of abstaining from alcohol but are incapable of controlling the amount they drink when they do. This causes them many serious problems. (7) (11)

The environment in which a person drinks and the mindset that a person has before drinking also influence the effects of alcohol on a person. (13) (2) International research studies found that only when a drunken person is provoked, threatened, frustrated does alcohol use cause aggressive behavior. Among the factors listed that might produce this atmosphere of aggression are crowding, bad seating in a bar, dim lighting, noise, poor ventilation, etc. (2)

The effects of alcohol on the brain can be permanent because brain cells do not regenerate once they are destroyed. A study done with elderly alcoholic patients revealed that some alcohol-related diseases, including dementia, alcohol withdrawal delirium, and Korsakoff's syndrome, can be permanent. In the study, 25% of the 216 patients tested had an alcohol related brain disease.

In sum, we saw that alcohol affects the brain by killing brain cells and by suppressing inhibitory centers. The dead brain cells can be associated with the loss of memory and impaired judgement. A person whose inhibitory centers are suppressed often lacks anxiety and has a feeling of confidence. With anxiety lessened, a drunken person would be more able to do things that he would normally not do. One implication of this is that a drunken person may know what he is doing at the time that he commits something that he might later regret because of this "extra confidence." He is probably even capable of remembering events after the effects of alcohol have worn out. However, the severity or outrageousness of his action make him embarrassed of what he did and so he denies it. He remembers what he did but cannot believe that he did it because it is something that he would not do under normal circumstances. In this case, there is a self in a drunken person but it is suppressed in order to cover himself from the consequences of his actions. We also saw that it is possible for an alcoholic to have episodes of blackout and amnesia and still be able to interact with his surroundings. This could be compared to sleepwalking in which a sleepwalker is able to avoid all the obstacles in his way and even be able to respond when asked a question and yet be in deep sleep, completely unaware of his surroundings. Alcoholism, as a disease of addiction, is not something that can be willed away. It can be prevented but once a person is addicted to alcohol, he loses control of his urges and the amount he drinks. This has implications on the question of whether an alcoholic should be responsible for his actions (self and non-self distinction). Even if he is not in control of his actions as an alcoholic, one can argue that he should still be held responsible for his actions (even if he is "sick") because "what he or she invests in addiction - is the personal creation of the addict..." (14) In other words, he chose to be an addict and thus he should deal with it's consequences. This reasoning becomes sketchy when we consider the possibility that a person may be genetically predisposed to alcoholism. While there is no evidence to support this claim, there is also not enough evidence to disprove it. It is known that children with alcoholic parents do have a greater tendency to be alcoholics themselves. This could be due to genetics or to environmental factors including conditions in the home. We have seen that alcohol is a dangerous drug and has the ability to affect a person's judgement and alter one's behavior, whether it is during a blackout episode or a result of an "over-confident" act.

All the factors discussed above make the effects of alcoholism on behavior such a controversial subject. It is almost impossible to know exactly what another person is thinking about at any particular moment. Unless this is made possible, the question of whether or not a drunken person knows what he is doing or remembers what he did cannot be answered with precision. The question of whether or not there is a "self" operating while a person is drunk still remains to be answered.

WWW Sources

1)What is my risk of becoming an alcoholic? , from the Center for Substance Abuse Research, University of Maryland

2)Institute of Alcohol Studies,

3)What is alcohol?, from the Center for Substance Abuse Research, University of Maryland

4)University of Michigan Health System

5), from the Center for Substance Abuse Research, University of Maryland

6)How many drinks does it take to get a person drunk?, from the Center for Substance Abuse Research, University of Maryland

7) What is an alcoholic?, from the Center for Substance Abuse Research, University of Maryland

8)National Council On Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.

9)Solutions Outpatient Services


11)Douglas L. Gelowitz, Ph.D., Neuropsychiatry

12)Hobart and William Smith Colleges

13) How do set and setting affect the alcohol experience?, from the Center for Substance Abuse Research, University of Maryland

14)Murphy Library, Electronic Reserves Collection

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