It is a whole new world when it comes to our understandings of the human brain – the three pound organ that controls everything we think, feel, say and do, from how we feel pain or love, to running or driving a car, to the drinking patterns we develop or the ways we handle stress. And these understandings are the result of advances in imaging technologies that allow scientists and medical professionals to study the live human brain, in action and over time.
Through this research, it’s now understood the brain exerts this control via neural networks, which refers to an electro-chemical signaling process by which brain cells (also known as neurons) “talk” to one another and to and from cells throughout the body via the nervous system. And it is this talking that determines everything a person thinks, feels, says and does.
How is it neural networks collectively control everything we think, feel, say and do? The answer — “They wire.”
A number of neural networks are instinctual or automatic – we are born with these – such as the ability to sleep, cry, eat, but a majority are by repetitive activation – LEARNING – meaning when the cells are used over and over for a particular activity – or as the phrase goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” they form brain maps – embedded neural networks – for the things we do on a repetitive basis. Examples of brain maps include riding a bike (you may not have ridden a bike for years and then get on one and you’re off); or reading (think about the process of learning to read and how that evolves from pictures in infancy to simple words in toddlerhood to chapter books in elementary school to adult reading in high school and then it’s always there); or driving a car, texting, running or reacting to stress.
Brain maps are triggered into action by cues – sound, sight, touch, smell, emotions, memories, time of day, as examples.
We form these brain maps for the things we do on a repetitive basis, and they become our habits – our go-to behaviors – they are how we move through our days – because let’s face it, if we had to “hook up” all the neural networks that go into getting us out the door in the morning, we’d still be stuck in our morning routine (getting out of bed, showering, shaving, making coffee, drinking coffee, making and eating breakfast…all of the rote behaviors in which we engage without much thought or planning).
Brain Maps Around Alcohol Misuse
When “something” gets in the way or changes this electro-chemical signaling process, that something changes the way a person’s neural networks work and thus changes a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
The ethyl alcohol chemical in alcoholic beverages is an example of “something” that gets in the way of the chemical portion of this electro-chemical signaling process. When a person drinks more alcohol than their liver can metabolize, the ethyl alcohol chemicals change cell-to-cell communications in areas of the brain that control a person’s judgement, memory, motivation, pleasure and motor skills, as examples. The result is unintentional behaviors (unless they behave that way when sober) known as drinking behaviors: verbal, physical, emotional abuse; neglect; domestic violence; sexual assualt, embarrassing oneself at a company party; performing unsafely on the job; or driving while impared, as examples.
When a person repeatedly misuses alcohol, they develop brain maps around their misuse, aka, their drinking patterns; drinking patterns cued by any number of things, including: time of day, people they drink with, to relieve stress, to celebrate…). These drinking patterns include binge drinking, heavy social drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism (the brain disease of addiction). And it is these drinking patterns that cause secondhand drinking (explained in my article appearing in the University of Texas Center for Neurobehavioral Research on Addiction’s CNRA Connections, “Secondhand Drinking” (begins on pages 7-8).”
Which brings me to the title of this article…
Research Underscores the Importance of Alcohol Misuse Prevention
Brain maps developed by repetative activation of a sequence of neural networks involving alcohol misuse point to the importance of prevention. And in most cases, prevention is relatively easy WHEN people understand the concepts mentioned above, along with their understanding the risk factors for developing an alcohol misuse problem, how stress works in the brain, how a person looses control of their drinking, the difference between alcoholism as a developmental brain disease and alcohol abuse as a drinking pattern that can be changed, and how a person can heal/re-wire their brain for better health.
Below you will find three 2015 articles reinforcing the importance of preventing the problem (brain map) before it wires in. This reinforces the importance of bringing effective alcohol misuse prevention programs into the workplace, programs that in turn prevent secondhand drinking, as well.
- Why Binge Drinking May Wire the Brain for Alcohol Dependence
- Unique UIC Center Will Study Alcohol’s Effect on Genes
- Advances in Addiction Recovery (page 16-19)
The following link shares an example of one of my alcohol misuse prevention training programs for the workplace: