The Neuroanth Hangover

A Few Too Many? Joan Acocella gives us the low-down on hang-overs, offering us hope (what little there is), science, anthropology, and even some morality! It’s a great article in The New Yorker, a neuroanth mash best enjoyed with a beer or a whiskey.

She covers the theories of why we have hang-overs in the first place, going through withdrawal, dehydration, inflammation (particularly due to cytokines), and congeners (impurities from the fermentation process). To these particularly bodily reactions, Acocella adds the role of genetics. Some people have a greater toxic response, often due to less alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme which breaks down alcohol. Others feel less of a withdrawal effect, building up tolerance more quickly.

Beyond the genetics, she also highlights an interesting theory to help explain hangovers. Wayne Jones has proposed that the liver process alcohol in two stages, first the ethanol (the alcohol) and then the methanol (a secondary ingredient in many wines and liquors). Methanol breaks down into formic acid, which is quite toxic. The main recipe to deal with this? Delay the move to methanol (drink some more) or distract yourself, say with spicy foods, to “divert the body’s attention away from coping with alcohol.” Or try comfort foods, again, to deal with the stress, inflammation, and toxins.

But Acocella also highlights the emotional and cognitive symptoms as well. Kingsley Amis wrote, “When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover… You have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is.” Besides the tragic view, there is also the simple fact of cognitive impairment—drivers and airline pilots perform significantly worse the morning after. “There are laws against drunk driving, but not against driving with a hangover.”

Yet Acocella makes her essay unique by covering the anthropology of hangovers—alcohol as medicine, language and hangovers, cultural remedies from around the world. It is both cure and poison, and Acocella, surely drawing on personal experience, prefers the Danish phrase for hangover: “carpenters in the forehead.” One of her favorite cures? “My contact in Calcutta said [to drink] buttermilk. ‘You can also pour it over your head,’ he added. ‘Very soothing’.”

In summary, Acocella writes, “A truly successful hangover cure is probably going to be slow in coming. In the meantime, however, it is not easy to sympathize with the alcohol disciplinarians, so numerous, for example, in the United States. They appear not to know that many people have a lot that they’d like to forget. In the words of the English aphorist William Bolitho, ‘The shortest way out of Manchester is… a bottle of Gordon’s gin,’ and if that relief is temporary the reformers would be hard put to offer a more lasting solution. Also questionable is the moral emphasis of the temperance folk, their belief that drinking is a lapse, a sin, as if getting to work on time, or living a hundred years, were the crown of life. They forget alcohol’s relationship to camaraderie, sharing, toasts. Those, too, are moral matters.”

As a bonus (well, you need one to deal with a hangover, right?), Dwight Garner writes on Kingsley Amis, drinking and hangovers in Toasting the Joys of Imbibing Properly. Besides adding some more reflections on the meaning of hangovers and Amis’ own cures, Garner gives us this tidbit quite appropriate for a Friday (but don’t say I didn’t warn you about tomorrow morning!):

“The human race,” [Amis] noted, “has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings.” And he could not help observing the way that “hilarity and drink are connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way.”

4 thoughts on “The Neuroanth Hangover

  1. Thanks, Daniel! That was completely unexpected, and a lot of fun. The graphic alone is great, but the posting has a lot of fantastic nuggets. Make sure that this stuff winds up in our chapter on brain alteration as a form of cultural practice. I’m on my second beer this Friday night, and it was a timely piece to read.

  2. I’m about ready for a gin martini. An old habit come anew just yesterday. But hey, I’ve bought some buttermilk for tomorrow morning.

    I hope that third beer was good!

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