Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Nation of Lushes

March 12th, 2010 · 6 Comments

So we’re starting the second draft of our addiction piece for Wired today, which means the majority of our mental bandwidth shall be dedicated to inebriation for the next six to seven days. A rough ride for us, as the topic is a beast—we’re still not entirely sure we understand what takes place in the mesolimbic pathway when a shot of Wild Turkey works its dark magic.

But the upside is that we’ll have plenty of great tidbits to Microkhan as we plow through, starting with this historical tidbit from the excellent Slaying the Dragon. While we knew that our American predecessors were fond of booze, we had no idea of the depth of their affection:

Between 1790 and 1830, America fundamentally altered its pattern of alcohol consumption. In 1792, there were 2,579 distilleries in the U.S. and annual per capita alcohol consumption was 2.5 gallons. In 1810, there were 14,191 U.S. distilleries and annual per-capita alcohol consumption had risen to more than 4.5 gallons. By 1830, annual consumption had risen to 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person. Problems of public drunkenness and disorder, and the impact of drunkenness on family life, intensified in the midst of this collective spree.

For comparison’s sake, today’s most drunken nation, Luxembourg, boasts a per-capita consumption rate of just 4.1 gallons.

Some obvious ideas pop to mind as to why early Americans were such prodigious drinkers. The lack of potable water in many areas probably made whiskey the safer bet, in terms of avoiding terrible diseases (save for cirrhosis, of course). Most lines of work involved heavy and dangerous labor, and alcohol dulled the monotony and physical pain. Leisure opportunities were few and far between, save for the easy-to-obtain pleasure of gathering with one’s comrades and knocking back a few jugs of XXX.

But we think there’s also something to be said for those decades as being America’s adolescence, a time when experiments in self-destruction are often integral to finding one’s way in the world. The excitement of being part of the American experiment obviously fed into a sense of overconfidence, bordering on hubris. (See: Manifest Destiny, The War of 1812, etc.) If America was fated to become such a great and mighty nation, then copious amounts of alcohol could only add to the fun without causing any real problems.

Eventually, of course, we grew out of this phase, to the point that our social values tilted too radically in the other direction. But nations are just vast collections of human beings, and humans change their minds several times over the course of their lives. In theory, a happy equilibrium is found after several missteps. We’re not too sure how close we are to getting there, though—the existence of Bud Select 55 makes us think our relationship to alcohol still needs to evolve a bit.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    For a very good look at America’s relationship with alcohol, especially the illicit sort, check out “Chasing the White Dog” by Max Watman. It chronicles both the history and current state of affairs with respect to illegal booze. It’s particularly interesting how he points out that almost no one who actually wanted to drink during Prohibition had any trouble getting their hands on alcohol. One example is that a lot of former wineries sold “raisin cakes” that came with warnings not to do X, Y and Z because that would result in fermentation.

    For a good explanation of how reward feedback pathways work, check out Radiolab’s episode “Stochasticity”. While they’re technically talking about pattern recognition, the idea that the effects of the feedback loop are highly dependent on the starting conditions WRT dopamine levels would seem to give a clue as to what might be going on. It also talks about how we have a tendency to edit out information that contradicts our assumptions “having a hangover blows, why did I drink so much?” and pay more attention to information that reinforces our assumptions “man, this stuff is great!”.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful comment.

    In terms of the feedback loop, the part I’m stumbling on is why some of us are able to correctly process all of the information related to drinking (i.e. the downsides as well as the ups), and some cannot. I mean, I love drinking beer, but I know that too much beer isn’t good for me–it’ll make me fat, counter my creative and professional ambitions, hurt my wallet, etc. The alcoholic knows all of these downsides on some level, but keeps drinking. Why?

    I guess one easy answer is that their dopamine system is just too disregulated, and so they assign far too high of a reward to intoxication. But I am deeply uncomfortable with the concept of genetic destiny–that some folks are simply doomed to certain behaviors by virtue of (in this case) their inborn neural chemistry. There’s more at work here, but I can’t quite pinpoint it.

    Of course, neither can some of the finest minds in addiction science, so I’m in good company. This is a truly thorny topic, and one which we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of.

  • Jordan

    With respect to determinism, I would suspect that there are some people are simply wired for addiction. There is a strong hereditary component that twin studies seem to support. With that said, they’re probably in the minority. For a lot of people, there also seems to be a strong environmental component. What was their mental state at the time they started using? What were their surroundings like, both physically and socially? What were the circumstances that they grew up in? At this point it seems like the best we can say is “Here are a bunch of risk factors and pathways that seem to be involved in addiction. We don’t know exactly how they fit together or how much weight to give to each factor, but it’s clearly complicated”. Not exactly satisfying journalism, but certainly a lot closer to the truth than a lot of the scare-mongering that goes on.

    I know I can’t point to any one factor being the key element in my own relationship with substances. There isn’t a lot of history of addiction in my family, though my paternal grandmother was a life-long smoker. My parents generally provided a good example of how to have a healthy relationship with alcohol, but I still didn’t start drinking for years after it became an option. I seem to have a very high innate tolerance, but that’s certainly not the case for my parents. Definitely hard to pick apart.

  • Captured Shadow

    Dr. Drew Pinsky of Loveline fame has a book on treating addition that I haven’t read but might offer some layman’s explanations on the physiology. He also has some ideas on childhood traumas connecting to a predisposition for addition. Interesting stuff, but I think he treats everything like addiction.

  • hubcap

    I have always enjoyed this line from Kingley Amis’s description of a bad hangover in Lucky Jim:

    “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.”

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @hubcap: Have to read that. No one writes about booze quite like the elder Amis.

    @Captured Shadow: Actually interviewed Dr. Drew for the piece. Said some really interesting things about treatment. His voice will def. be in there.

    @Jordan: So much we still don’t know ’bout why booze (or any substance) causes such disparate effects in people. That’s one of the challenges of doing this bit–more questions than answers.

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