Friday, May 04, 2007

Need An Excuse To Get Drunk? Try Neurochemistry!

Perhaps the best way to understand the role certain neurochemicals play in our thinking and feeling is to get drunk.

Not only is that without a doubt the very best way to understand the role of those neurochemicals, it is surely the most fun way. So go ahead! Have a few glasses! By drinking yourself into a senseless stupor while reading this, you will prove to all the world how admirably dedicated you are to understanding neurochemistry.

As you drink, you will notice that alcohol changes both the way you think and the way you feel. That observation should rightfully astonish you. If it doesn’t, you are not yet drunk enough. Have another!

It should astonish you because the common wisdom is that thinking and feeling are two very separate things. On the one hand we have thought. On the other hand, we have emotions. And some say the two shall never meet. Yet, here we have evidence that a single substance – alcohol – changes both thinking and feeling. Thinking and feeling not only meet in alcohol, but they get married.

Now, your astonishment at that revelation can only increase beyond all bounds once you reflect that it’s an actual physical substance producing the changes in your thinking and feeling. The way that works: There are neuroreceptors at various locations in your body that are specifically receptive to alcohol. When molecules of alcohol latch onto those neuroreceptors, you begin to think and feel in the ways you are currently experiencing if you’ve taken my wise advice and have been drinking as you read this.

Certain neurochemicals do precisely the same thing that alcohol does. Those neurochemicals have receptors at various locations in our bodies, and when they latch onto those receptors, those neurochemicals change both the way we think and the way we feel.

Good examples of neurochemicals that change both how we think and how we feel are oxytocin, testosterone, and the cortisols. Of course, by now, you should have drunk enough that you’d be inclined to amiably agree with me even if I said cat litter was a good example of a neurochemical that changes both how you think and feel.

So what does all this mean? Allow me to suggest that your last thought before passing out might be this: Since at least some emotions change both thinking and feeling, it is wrong to assume those emotions are mere feelings alone. Rather, we must believe them to have a cognitive aspect as well. And perhaps that cognitive aspect can best be described as a way of perceiving, a way of looking, a focus, or a perspective.

3 comments:

Greta Christina said...

Have you read "Descarte's Error"? It talks about this exact idea -- the fallacy of thinking that emotion and reason are separate, and more specifically that emotion interferes with reason and reason would be better off without it.

The thesis of the book is that, when the parts of the brain that experience emotion are damaged, the ability to reason suffers severely -- in particular, the ability to prioritize, to make judgments about what is and isn't important. When you don't feel enough to care about anything, you can't make good decisions.

Paul said...

Hi Greta!

I haven't read "Descarte's Error", but it sounds like a good book. I'll check for it in my local library. Thanks for the tip!

Schwinn said...

Surely alcohol changes the way we think and feel but one cannot conclude that they are not separate or are non-different.

Would it not be equally plausible to say that thought affects emotion, and that alcohol alters our thought, thus affecting our emotion as well. Or does emotion affect thought?