You’ve probably heard the claim that alcohol kills brain cells. A new study makes this a little more concrete: long-time alcoholics’ brains (even those who are now sober) are not good at recognizing facial expressions. Specifically, their brain’s limbic system (which supports emotion, long-term memory and the ability to smell things) does not register facial expressions of joy, sadness or disappointment as intensely for them.
Making sure that the two test groups were matched in IQ, socioeconomic status and education, researchers showed 15 now-sober alcoholics and 15 nonalcoholics pictures of faces asking, “How intelligent do you think this person is?” The pictures represented a face that was positive, negative or neutral. Using an MRI to check out how the respective groups’ limbic systems were operating, they saw strong activity in the nonalcoholics’ brains in response to the emotion-expressing photos, but for the abstaining alcoholics — it was all the same to them.
Without being able to read a person’s expressions, even the recovering alcoholic (to say nothing of a practicing alcoholic), will have more difficulty with interpersonal situations — with coworkers, significant others and family members. They may misread what's happening and overreact or underreact. All this may cause more strife for them, which could lead to more drinking. What researchers aren’t clear about it is which came first — emotional insensitivity and hence alcoholism, or alcohol-induced emotional insensitivity?