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A News Study Shows Alcoholics Misread Facial Cues

They don’t call it getting blotto for nothing.

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?

Image Source: Getty
Join The Conversation
lickety-split lickety-split 7 years
so it causes brain damage to a specific area of the brain. humm, well, people drink to "forget". have enough and you'll never know. interesting.
poptart-princess poptart-princess 7 years
*at all
poptart-princess poptart-princess 7 years
some people say alcohol lets them "feel" and/or "express their emotions" and not feel inhibited/ashamed about it, especially if they had a hard time doing so - after all, a drunk man's words ( and actions ) are a sober man's thoughts. i can say when i went through my drinking phase, this rings true with me ( i'm really very "feel-y" and emotional but i have immense hang ups displaying it. you did that in my family and you were "weak", though i'm working to grow out of this ). it certainly allowed me to loosen up and express myself in ways that i wouldn't ever all all, or unless i'd known someone a long time.
roseate roseate 7 years
wow. that is quite the finding. the basic experiment that could answer that last question is unethical, so the researchers will have to get creative. it may not be possible to figure that part of it out.
Chrstne Chrstne 7 years
That's a good thing to ask. I'd have to say that alcohol leading to emotional insensitivity is the issue. Maybe it's not the case for everyone. I did know a few people who one day just started drinking -- for fun, really...and then all of the sudden they would turn to alcohol for everything. I don't see how emotional insensitivity would lead to alcoholism. Maybe I just don't see how if you are emotionally insensitive that you would think "Okay, because of this, I will start drinking heavily".
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