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Biology 103
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Alcohol Consumption: Losing a Sense of Self

Leah Rayner

As we discussed in class, there is a concept that each individual has more than one "self." An individual has both a physical "self" and a mental or emotional "self." I will give you an example to illustrate this concept. Many people who wake up to an alarm in the morning often find it very difficult to get themselves out of bed. They may know that they will be late for class or for work if they stay in bed but their bodies are in need of more sleep. This is an example of a conflict between the two selves. Although there are arguably two selves, they are actually both rooted in the physical. As a result, a chemical change in the body can result in a significant change in the mental/emotional self. Specifically, I will explore how the effects of alcohol consumption can significantly impact one's choices, how causing a physical change by choice can influence a person mentally.

The experiment that I designed following the "Time to Think?" lab heightened my interest on how alcohol consumption effects the body and the brain. As I looked into research about alcohol consumption I visited the websites for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the American Medical Association under the assumption that they would provide a significant amount of research regarding the biological effects of alcohol consumption. I actually found a much larger concentration of material covering the dangerous and/or self-destructive actions taken when under the influence of alcohol, specifically as a result of binge drinking. Still, I will begin my discussing the basic biology of what takes place as a result of alcohol consumption.

So, what's happening to one's brain as an individual consumes more and more alcohol? If one drinks two drinks in one hour or one reaches a blood alcohol level of .02 - .06% the association area of the cerebrum is progressively affected. This impairs one's ability to reason as well his/her judgement. Symptoms include dizziness, less inhibited behavior, overestimation of skills, and slower reaction time. After consuming two to three drinks in one hour or one reaches a blood alcohol level of .6 - .10% most of the cerebrum is progressively affected. The ability to reason, judgement, one's senses, merit, coordination, vision, and speech are all functions that are affected and/or impaired. Symptoms include slurring of speech, blurred vision, and loss of coordination. (1) It is evident that even after only two or three drinks the distinction between the physical self and the mental/emotional self has lessened. Although the mental/emotional self may be unaware of it, he/she does not have the control that he/she had prior to consuming alcohol.

As one continues to drink the result is even more drastic. After four to five drinks in one hour or one reaches a blood alcohol level of .12 - .15% the entire cerebrum is progressively affected. In addition to functions previously mentioned as affected and/or impaired, hearing is also affected and/or impaired. Symptoms include double vision, drowsiness, loss of balance, and clumsiness. After eight to ten drinks in one hour or one reaches a blood alcohol level of .30 - .40% the limbic system is progressively affected. Respiration and heart rate are affected and/or impaired in addition to all of the other functions previously mentioned. As a result the individual will either go into a deep sleep or into a coma. (1)

The Harvard School of Public Health completed a study that explored how alcohol consumption resulted in individuals making arguably bad choices. One of the samples was a group who had binge drank three or more times in the last two weeks. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more for men. (2) Of those sampled, 62.5% missed at least one class, 46.3% got behind in schoolwork, 62% did something they regretted, 54% forgot where they were or what they did, 42.6% argued with a friend, 41.5% engaged in unplanned sex, 20.4% did not use protection during sex, 22.7% damaged property, 12.7% got in trouble with the police, 26.6% got hurt or injured, .9% were medically treated for an alcohol overdose, 56.7% drove after drinking, and 48% had five or more of the above alcohol-related problems. (3) The study compares this sample with a sample who had not binge drank at all and the percentages were significantly lower for them.

What does this all mean in terms of the mental and physical selves? I would argue that as one consumes more and more alcohol he/she loses his/her mental self. There is no longer a piece of him/her who is arguing rationally for certain actions. This is a particularly timely issue with New Year's Eve approaching. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, 116 people died in alcohol-related traffic crashes between 6:00 p.m. on New Year's Eve 2000 and 5:59 a.m. the next morning. Two weeks later, on the same night of the week, the death toll dropped by more than 50%. (4) The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that the large rise in alcohol-related traffic fatalities on New Year's Eve is a result of the myths that people believe about drinking. One of the most important things that people are unaware of is that judgement and/or coordination can be impaired for up to twelve hours or more after drinking. (4)

So, what does this mean in terms of those who suffer from alcoholism? The four symptoms that accompany the disease are: craving, loss of control, physical dependence on alcohol, and an increased tolerance for alcohol. (5) The two symptoms that are the most significant in the discussion of how alcohol effects the "selves" are loss of control and physical dependency. The dependency on alcohol changes the connection one has with his/her mental/emotional self. He/she is no longer able to make choices based on his/her knowledge and/or values rather the body grows to have to great a dependence on the chemical substance for this to be possible.

This concept of having more than one "self" is very complex. It is somewhat easy to conceptualize when considering the example of trying to get out of bed in the morning when one has not gotten enough sleep. Still, there are not simply two selves as we can see when taking a look at how alcohol consumption effects the physical and the mental self. The mental self is strongly rooted in the physical and can be significantly impacted by the way one care's for his/her body.

WWW Sources

1)"Effects of Alcohol on YOUR Body"

2)STOPCollegeBingeing.Com, A Division of the American Medical Association

3)"Binge Drinking and the American College Student: What's Five Drinks?

4)"New Year, Old Myths, New Fatalities", A Factsheet from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

5)"Alcoholism: Getting the Facts", A Publication of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism