The vast majority of adults have direct experience with drinking alcohol. Despite this, there is no scientific data on the effects of alcohol on empathy, and very little on the effects of alcohol on sexual arousal or the processing of emotional social information.
In a recent study led by Professor Matthias Liechti from the University Hospital in Basel, Switzerland, researchers tried to answer some of the questions around how alcohol affects sexual arousal and the way alcohol alters the way we relate to others.
The team enlisted 60 healthy participants (30 women, 30 men), aged between 18 and 50 in a random-order, double blind, crossover study. Thirty of the participants were given a glass of alcoholic beer (0.5L depending on sex and body weight). Consuming the beer raised their blood alcohol content to around 0.4 g/L. Non-alcoholic beer was given to the thirty control subjects.
The subjects were then asked to perform a range of tasks. These included a sexual arousal test, a face recognition test and an empathy test. The subjects and controls were switched at the end of the tests and the process was repeated.
The main results were:
- Effects were less in men than in women, but overall, those who had previously shown some social inhibition showed a greater effect.
- The tendency to want to be with others in a happy social situation was increased.
- People see happy faces faster when drinking beer.
- It was easier for people (especially women) to view explicit sexual images after drinking the beer, but it did not lead to greater sexual arousal.
Oxytocin is a hormone thought to be is involved in bonding and it mediates aspects of social cognition. The researchers checked the ‘before and after’ levels of the hormone, but found that it did not change.
Liechti summarized the study by noting that although many people drink beer and know how it effects them through personal experience, very little scientific data exists on alcohol’s effects on the processing of emotional social information. In contrast, the effect of many substances of abuse and medications have been tested on various aspects of social cognition and emotion processing. The study shows that drinking a glass of beer increases concern for positive emotional situations and helps people to see happy faces faster. Although the viewing of sexual images consistent with disinhibition is facilitated by alcohol, it does not actually enhance sexual arousal. It is however likely that these effects of alcohol on social cognition enhances sociability.
Professor Wim van den Brink (Amsterdam), past Chair of the ECNP Scientific Programme Committee, commented on the study. He finds it interesting that the study confirms conventional wisdom that alcohol is a social lubricant and that modest use of alcohol makes people more social, happier and less reserved when it comes to sexual engagement. He thinks that the sex differences in the findings can be explained by differences in tolerance due to variations in previous levels of alcohol consumption, or by socio-cultural factors. It is however also possible that it can simply be attributed to differences in blood alcohol concentration between females and males with the same alcohol intake. Other factors that would influence the different effects of alcohol that can be seen include how much alcohol has been consumed, and whether blood alcohol levels are decreasing or increasing.