How Alcohol Fuels Civilization

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Gonna pick me up a six-pack of art this evening

Marshall McLuhan made himself a household name, writing about media. Media are tools, things that extend ourselves: a hammer extends our fist, flashlights extend our eyes, etc.

I’m not sure he ever considered whether alcohol might be a medium. That’s the theory of a new book by Edward Slingerland (not Scissorhand), Drunk: How we sipped, danced, and stumbled our way to civilization.

The basic premise: Our prefrontal cortex does the reasoning, thinking, and analysis. It, in other words, is the boring part of the brain. When it swells, like it does when we’re concentrating on making a living, it stifles the creative and fun part of the brain. In order to increase creativity and fun, we need to shrink it. Alcohol is a tool that allows us to shrink it.

Slingerland, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has a novel thesis, arguing that by causing humans “to become, at least temporarily, more creative, cultural, and communal… intoxicants provided the spark that allowed us to form truly large-scale groups”. In short, without them, civilisation might not have been possible.

This may seem an audacious claim, but Slingerland draws on history, anthropology, cognitive science, social psychology, genetics and literature, including alcohol-fuelled classical poetry, for evidence. He is an entertaining writer, synthesising a wide array of studies to make a convincing case.

Without a science-based understanding of intoxicants, we cannot decide what role they can and should play, he stresses. In small doses, alcohol can make us happy and sociable. But still, consuming any amount of intoxicant can seem stupid, he concedes, because the chemical targets the prefrontal cortex. This late-maturing brain region is the seat of abstract reasoning, which also governs our behaviour and ability to remain on task. Research suggests small children are very creative because their prefrontal cortex is barely developed.

A childlike state of mind in an adult is key to cultural innovation, argues the author. Intoxicants provide an efficient route to that state by temporarily taking the prefrontal cortex offline, he says.


New Scientist

Slingerland, it should be noted, says alcohol is only one way to shrink the prefrontal cortex. There are many other ways: intense exercise to the point of exhaustion, where you just don’t give a rip about anything (“punch drunk”), staying up late, meditation, psychedelics.

Slingerland was on the Joe Rogan Experience this week. It promised to be an excellent episode, touching on drinking, Taoism, and other things that interest me during the first ten minutes, but then the conversation separated into a dozen other areas, all of which are interesting but none of them hitting this premise of the book that I find interesting.