Can Binge Drinking Affect Your Level of Empathy?

binge drinking
Credit: Louis Quail/In Pictures/Corbis
  • Binge Drinking affects more than 30% of all adults who drink alcohol in the UK and France
  • Binge drinking can cause significant brain damage and memory loss in younger adults
  • A recent study conducted by the University of Sussex has found binge drinkers may require more effort to feel empathy than non-binge drinkers.

What is Binge Drinking?

Binge Drinking is the consumption of more than 60g of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in a month. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines it as a pattern of drinking that raises the blood’s alcohol concentration to 0.08g/dl or more. 

There is currently no consensus on how many drinks may constitute a binge. However, the CDC states it as the consumption of 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours for males and 4 or more drinks for females.

Source: CDC

The condition is most common among 18 to 34-year-olds. Cognitive deficits, alcohol poisoning and, increased violence are just some of the effects of frequent binge drinking among young adults.

Empathy Evoked Through Images of Injuries

Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand, and share another person’s emotions.

Increased alcohol consumption among 13 to 20-year-olds is believed to cause decreased empathy. Excessive alcohol consumption itself has also shown to cause emotional dysregulation in individuals.

71 university students from across France and the UK, were recruited for the study. They were then classified as binge drinkers or non-binge drinkers.

Each group was asked to refrain from alcohol for at least 12 hours prior to the session.

Examples of images in the Pain and the matched No-pain conditions
Source: University of sussex

To elicit empathy in the participants, pictures of injured limbs were shown. Participants were then told to imagine the limb belonging to themselves or another person and then state how much pain they associate with each image. 

The research aimed to investigate whether binge drinkers show less empathy compared to non-bingers. Furthermore, through the help of functional MRIs, they compared the brain responses to the depiction of pain among both the groups. Findings of the research were recently published in Neuroimage: Clinical journal.

Binge Drinkers Struggled to Feel Empathy

The data shows that binge-drinkers need to work harder to feel empathy for other people in pain. What this means in everyday life is that people who binge drink might struggle to perceive the pain of others as easily as non-binge drinkers do.

Dr. Charlotte Rae 

The Binge-drinkers took more time to respond when trying to state the pain from the perspective of another individual. The scans also revealed more brain activity during the task.

We have shown with this study that dysfunction associated with binge drinking is even more extensive than previously known. A region of the brain called the Fusiform Body Area associated with the recognition of body parts showed hyperactivity in binge-drinkers in a situation in which feelings of empathy are experienced.

Professor Theodora Duka

However, there was no difference in the rating of pain among the two groups when told to imagine the injured body part as their own. In conclusion, binge drinkers don’t feel less empathy but require more effort or brain resources to perceive the pain of others.

References:

C.L. Rae, F. Gierski, K.W. Smith, K. Nikolaou, A. Davies, H.D. Critchley, M. Naassila, T. Duka, Differential brain responses for perception of pain during empathic response in binge drinkers compared to non-binge drinkers, NeuroImage: Clinical (2020), doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2020.102322

Jones, S. A., Lueras, J. M., & Nagel, B. J. (2018). Effects of Binge Drinking on the Developing Brain. Alcohol research : current reviews39(1), 87–96.

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