Cape Town – Research published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical claims if you’re a heavy drinker, feeling empathy is especially difficult.
This after a recent study published in Scientific Reports found that even moderate drinking is associated with decreased brain volume.
Binge drinking is associated with brain dysfunction in areas supporting self-control and attention. Research suggests some people will, at times, avoid feeling empathy because it requires too much mental effort; it can feel cognitively costly to carry someone else’s emotional load.
Empathy is described in the dictionary ‘’as the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position’’.
Two weeks after South Africa ended a nine-week ban on alcohol sales in June, President Cyril Ramaphosa linked a surge in rapes and killings of women to the end of the country’s strict coronavirus lockdown, calling it a “dark and shameful week”.
Given Sigauqwe, spokesman from the rights group Sonke Gender Justice, told Reuters at the time that “alcohol may be one of the conditions for the spike (in violence against women)”.
Scientists from the University of Sussex reported that the brains of binge drinkers put more effort into feeling empathy for other people compared to the brains of people who do not binge drink.
In this study, binge drinking was defined as drinking more than 60 grams of pure alcohol during a single sitting at least once in the past 30 days. That’s about three-quarters of one bottle of wine, or 2.5 pints of lager (one pint equals 473 ml), the researchers said.
The Association for Alcohol Responsibility and Education categorises binge drinking as consuming a lot of alcohol over a short period of time (typically two hours). For men, this normally means five or more drinks and for women four or more drinks within that period.
For the University of Sussex study, the eight researchers observed the brain activity in the fMRI scanners of 71 participants from France and the UK while they undertook a pain perception task.
Half of the participants were classified as binge drinkers and half were not. The paper indicates that the binge drinkers were sober while being observed.
In the task, participants were shown an image of a limb being injured, and asked to imagine either that the body part was theirs, or that of another person, and to state how much pain was associated with the image.
The binge-drinking participants struggled more than their non-binge-drinking counterparts when trying to adopt the perspective of another person experiencing the pain: they took more time to respond and the scans revealed that their brains had to work harder – to use more neural resources – to appreciate how intensely another person would feel pain.
Professor Theodora Duka, lead author of the study on binge drinking and empathy, said: “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.
“It’s not that binge drinkers feel less empathy — it’s just that they have to put more brain resources into being able to do so.
“However, under certain circumstances, when resources become limited, binge drinkers may struggle to engage in empathetic response to others.”
But even for people who average fewer than 14 units of alcohol a week, who participated in the other study published in Scientific Reports, there was a reduction in the amount of total brain tissue seen on brain scans.
Although the study didn’t look at the physiological impact of brain tissue loss, any significant loss of brain tissue will reduce the brain’s ability to function at an optimal level.