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Drunk review: Could alcohol-induced creativity be key to civilisation?

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‘Drinking together may help make us more creative

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Drunk: How we sipped, danced, and stumbled our way to civilization

Edward Slingerland

Little, Brown Spark

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SOME years ago, when author Edward Slingerland gave a talk at a Google campus, his hosts ushered him into an impressive room. This is where coders pop in for liquid inspiration when they run into a creative wall, they told him. It wasn’t a place to get drunk alone.

In his engrossing book, Drunk, Slingerland writes that such spaces, which allow for both face-to-face communication and easy access to alcohol, can act as incubators for collective creativity. The boost that alcohol provides to individual creativity, he emphasises, is enhanced when people get drunk in groups.

For millennia, people have used alcohol and other mind-altering substances to get high. Some archaeologists even suggest that the first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread.

If intoxicants were merely hijacking pleasure centres in the brain by triggering the release of “reward” chemicals, or if they were once adaptive but are vices now, then evolution would have put the kibosh on our taste for these chemicals, says the author. So, what is going on?

Slingerland, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, has a novel thesis, arguing that by causing humans “to become, at least temporarily, more creative, cultural, and communal… intoxicants provided the spark that allowed us to form truly large-scale groups”. In short, without them, civilisation might not have been possible.

This may seem an audacious claim, but Slingerland draws on history, anthropology, cognitive science, social psychology, genetics and literature, including alcohol-fuelled classical poetry, for evidence. He is an entertaining writer, synthesising a wide array of studies to make a convincing case.

Without a science-based understanding of intoxicants, we cannot decide what role they can and should play, he stresses. In small doses, alcohol can make us happy and sociable. But still, consuming any amount of intoxicant can seem stupid, he concedes, because the chemical targets the prefrontal cortex. This late-maturing brain region is the seat of abstract reasoning, which also governs our behaviour and ability to remain on task. Research suggests small children are very creative because their prefrontal cortex is barely developed.

“A childlike state of mind in an adult is key to cultural innovation – intoxicants allow us to access that state”

A childlike state of mind in an adult is key to cultural innovation, argues the author. Intoxicants provide an efficient route to that state by temporarily taking the prefrontal cortex offline, he says.

Slingerland cites research using the US prohibition movement to test the idea that the communal consumption of alcohol can drive innovation. Prohibition has a long history, with local bans dating to the early 1800s. Using state-level imposition of alcohol prohibition as a starting point, researchers compared counties that had been “dry” for a long time to counties that had been “wet,” but which were suddenly forced to close their communal drinking venues. State-wide bans saw a 15 per cent drop in the number of new patents annually in previously wet counties compared with counties with existing bans.

The last chapter looks at alternatives to alcohol, which don’t produce hangovers, liver damage or risk of addiction. In some centres of innovation, he finds microdoses of purified psychedelics becoming popular.

After exploring the stress-busting, trust-building, creativity-boosting, pleasure-inducing aspects of alcohol, Slingerland dwells on its darker side. From drink-driving to violence, he finds there are many kinks to be ironed out before we can use alcohol as a force for good. That, I imagine, will take some doing. This heady book is, ultimately, an ode to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and is best savoured as a fresh take on a contentious topic.

Vijaysree Venkatraman is a science journalist based in Boston

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