"We've been looking at alcohol consumption through this very distorted lens," says Edward Slingerland, author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization. "We've only been looking at it as a kind of addictive pleasure substance. We haven't been seeing any of the positive social benefits."
While not minimizing the dangers of overuse, Slingerland lays out a case that alcohol is a cultural technology that motivated humans to create and maintain civilization.
"[Alcohol] helps us to be more creative. It helps us to be more communal. It helps us to cooperate on a large scale. It helps to make it easier for us to kind of rub shoulders with each other in large-scale societies that we live in. So it solved a bunch of adaptive problems that we uniquely face as a species because of this weird lifestyle we have."
Alcohol's effect on the brain's prefrontal cortex (PFC), Slingerland argues, allows us to be more receptive and creative.
"One of the functions of alcohol is to reach in and basically turn down our prefrontal cortex a few notches, temporarily taking us back to being like a four-year-old in terms of our cognitive flexibility but with all the knowledge and the goals and the affordances of being an adult. And it's temporary," says Slingerland.
"A few hours later, we're back to being adults again. So depressing the PFC increases…allows parts of our brain to talk in ways that normally they don't."
Suppressing the prefrontal cortex also makes it more difficult to lie.
"In every culture I know, whenever you get potentially hostile strangers or people with potentially competing interests who have to come to an agreement and figure something out, alcohol's involved. And in places that don't have alcohol, they use some other substance that has exactly the same function. The same way we shake hands when we need to show we're not carrying a weapon, if I sit down and drink a few beers with you, I'm basically taking my PFC out and putting it on the table and saying, 'you know, I'm cognitively disarmed.'"
"We have to learn to trust, even though it's not rational to trust," he says. "And alcohol's a tool for helping us to do that, not only by disarming our ability to lie and deceive other people, but it's also boosting serotonin and endorphins. It's making us feel good about each other. It's bonding us."
Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg. Motion graphics by Bragg and Lex Villena.