This Is Your Brain On Binge Drinking

I come from a university town that is literally at the bottom of the world, and students flock from all around the globe to study there. The university has a beautiful campus, an international reputation for research, and it is home to academics so wise that it’s hard not to turn into the ultimate fan-girl and hang amazed off their every word. But students don’t come from all around the world for that. Students go there for the drinking.

Every night the city is overrun by merry drunks, who fill the local bars, spill out onto the streets, stumble in front of taxis, and heroically clutch pies and chips against their chests as they stagger home. And every morning, students make their hungover way to class by picking through streets littered with broken glass and vomit, quietly giggling at the unfortunate lads and ladies who are sheepishly trying to sneak their way home in last night’s town clothes.

It’s fair to say that binge drinking is part of the culture there. Hell, let’s face it—binge drinking is the culture there.

So it was a nasty shock to me, one hungover morning when my psychology professor showed us what the brain of your average college lady who drinks up a storm over the weekend looks like, compared to a cultured college lady who abstains from drinking.

Farewell, drunken Bex, you glorious asshole.

First we saw the teetotallers’ brains. A collage of colours showed that their brains were working to full capacity. “Well,” I huffed, “those brains look okay, but they aren’t showing the amazing social skills and general fun-times going on in my brain!”

Then my professor put up a slide that showed what me and my binge drinking brethens’ brains looked like. There was no collage of colours for us—big chunks of brain activity were missing. These weren’t alcoholics—they were young women just like me, who drank upwards of five drinks in one sitting, sure. But only on the weekend.

And the parts that weren’t lighting up were all housed in the section of your brain that transforms you from an impulsive teenager to an effortlessly poised young lady: the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is right at the front of your brain. It’s tasked with grown-up things like weighing up the risks involved when you make decisions. It helps you to make choices based on the evidence rather than what your teenage “but I love him” brain tells you to do. It’s also the part of the brain that keeps your impulses and emotions in check. Your prefrontal cortex is that little voice in the back of your head that says, “Are you sure you should be going out drinking when you have a lab report due tomorrow?” (Side note: Curse you, Bex of the past!).

I hate to be a kill-joy, but if you’re like me (i.e. you enjoy living life with your head in the sand/a cask of wine) then you probably won’t know this: Your pefrontal cortex doesn’t stop developing until you’re in your mid-20s.  If you’re a millennial, (which I’m guessing a lot of you are), this means that your brain is still quietly forming its inner grown-up. Your prefrontal cortex is coming on board while you’re playing beer pong at college, when you’re burying yourself in a bottle of wine at Friday night office drinks, as you “self-medicate” after long hours at work, and as you stagger your way through seemingly endless bachelorette nights.

Binge drinkers have been shown to have impaired working memory, to have lower verbal recall, and to be less adept at problem-solving than their non-binging peers. Findings like that hint that binge drinking might be having a real impact on how our brains function in day-to-day life. Research in this area is still in its early days, but academics who study binge drinking are worried that all the drinking we’re doing is causing lasting damage to our brains.

Quite frankly, that horrifies me. I love my brain—for one, it does a great job at keeping me alive —but my brain is also how I make a living.

And yet. I also really love binge drinking.

I love the slow fuzzy glow that spreads through you as you knock back the wines. I love how somehow everything becomes so much funnier, how the relaxation smooths out all the tension you were only vaguely aware of, how the worries of the day fade into the distance until they’re nothing at all. And I love how my usual “high alert” radio station gets dimmed down so low that I can interpretive dance like a complete maniac and not give a flying frack what anyone thinks of me.

But I’m giving up binge drinking. I just can’t do it any more.

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person pouring liquor on drinking glass

I may feel glorious when I’m drunk, but I can also be incredibly obnoxious, and sometimes I am downright mean. One time, I went on a belligerent rampage and literally force-fed marshmallows to a devout (and very scared) vegan. Just writing that, I’m hunched over with full-body shame. Oh Bex of the past, you drunken asshole.

It’s not just fears for my precious brain that tipped me over the edge. Alcohol gives me blinding week-long migraines, and after nearly 15 years of getting my binge on, I’ve finally decided that it’s not worth it.*

It’s not all fun and games sitting on the sidelines while everyone else seems to be able to drink with abandon. Drinking a couple of wines (okay okay, 10 wines) is an integral part of the social scene  down here in New Zealand. When you don’t drink, everyone seems to take it as a personal affront.

Instead of being the life of the party, I’m now one of those people who get filthy tired by 9 p.m., and I often spend the second half of my increasingly rare nights out thinking longingly of my electric blanket. People ask me where “fun Bex” has gone, and I awkwardly laugh along. But it stings.

I miss my drunken security blanket. But there are some perks to living without it.

Here are some of the things I don’t miss: The hangovers. The black-outs. Having to keep yourself drunk because otherwise you’ll realise that you’re bored/tired/hungry. How the next day is a complete write-off. The holes in your memory where you’re not entirely sure what you said or did last night. How alcohol literally oozes out your pores the day after. Oh, and the brain damage.

So this is it, binge drinking. We’ve had some fabulous times together, but it’s time to say goodbye.

*Maybe that’s a sign that my prefrontal cortex is finally finished—hurrah!
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