Alcohol Weakens Your Brain’s “Alarm” to Making Mistakes

“First you take a drink , then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” – Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald

Have you ever seen an otherwise intelligent and comptent individual do embarrassing or stupid things while drinking?  Most of us have either experienced or witnessed such an event, and it is almost not terribly shocking when it happens.  What is it exactly that is going on in the brain that causes a normally composed person to lose self-control and make foolish mistakes when drinking?

A recent study that tested alcohol’s effects on brain activity discovered that alcohol essentially dulls the brain’s natural “alarm” that warns people when they are about to make a mistake.  The result of this effect of alcohol on the brain is marked loss of self-control.

Bruce Bartholow, associate professor of psychology in the University of Missouri College of Arts and Science, explains that “when people make mistakes, activity in a part of the brain responsible for monitoring behavior increases, essentially sending an alarm signal to other parts of the brain indicating that something went wrong.  Our study isn’t the first to show that alcohol reduces this alarm signal, but contrary to previous studies, our study shows that alcohol doesn’t reduce your awareness of mistakes — it reduces how much you care about making those mistakes.”

The idea that alcohol has the deleterious side effect of reducing how much you care about making mistakes is important. Bartholow’s study indicated that the brain’s natural “alarm signal” in response to errors (on a challenging computer task) was dramatically less pronounced in the participants who had consumed alcohol.  Additionally, the participants who had consumed alcohol were less likely to slow down during the computer task and be more careful after making errors.

Participants who had not consumed alcohol prior to engaging in the computer task tended to slow down after making a mistake, which is a common way that people who recognize they have made an error attempt to regain self-control.  However, the participants who had consumed consumed alcohol did not exhibit this tendency to slow down.  This sheds some light on the behavior of people when drinking… they may be less likely to be concerned with mistakes being made and do not engage in the slowing down process typical of someone attempting to regain self-control.

“There are certain circumstances under which reducing the brain’s alarm signal could be seen as a good thing, because some people, like those with anxiety disorders, are hyper-sensitive to things going wrong. In some people, a small amount of alcohol can take the edge off those anxious feelings, but consistently drinking as a way to reduce anxiety can lead to serious problems, including alcoholism,” said Bartholow. “But generally speaking, having a strong brain response to mistakes promotes better self-control and helps people avoid making further mistakes in the future.”

Do you notice a greater tendency to make mistakes or blunders when drinking than when sober?  How might you actively choose to counteract the effect that alcohol has on the brain’s natural “alarm” system?  In a recent post, “Control Impulses & Resist Temptation through ‘Brain Training’” I explored the beneficial effects of strengthening working memory on inhibiting impulsive behaviors.  Applying the practice of mindfulness to your daily life may also help you gradually become more and more aware of your own behaviors and the role you play in situations.

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University of Missouri-Columbia (2011, September 2). Alcohol dulls brain ‘alarm’ that monitors mistakes, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 4, 2011, from­/releases/2011/09/110901135030.htm

Featured image: Drink Cocktails by Aziz J. Hayat / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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