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Science of Selfishness: Alcoholics Misread Facial Cues

One of my favorite parts of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book is the Doctors opinion. That is the part of the book where we can read what the medical aspect of our disease is, which includes learning that this disease consists of three components: the mental, the physical and the spiritual malady. It was refreshing to read that this disease actually has science behind it that proves it’s not just us being “bad people with an alcohol problem.” Now there are even studies that can explain how we cannot detect emotion in expressions the same way other people can.

A new study found that the brains of alcoholics often differ from those of non-alcoholics in ways that make us poorer judges of facial expressions. In particular, alcoholics register less intensity in the limbic system,(also known as the reward center or where we seek pleasure) when observing faces. As a result of not being able to read expressions and emotions as others do, this causes many alcoholics to continue drinking and further destroy relationships and lives – because we are unaware of the damage we are doing or how it is affecting others.

Scientists conducted a study with alcoholics and non-alcoholics and had them observe pictures of people with different emotions and facial expressions and looked into the brain using MRI scans to measure the reaction. The MRI scans revealed that alcoholics’ brains had the same reaction whether the face showed emotion or showed no emotion.

My first reaction when reading this was, “finally, an excuse for being socially awkward.”  But is it? And when did this start, pre-addiction or post-addiction? Scientists have still yet to answer this question definitively. Knowing what we do about alcohol when it comes to affecting the brain, it is no wonder that it affects our social skills. The chance that alcohol did damage to the brain and caused this makes sense. However, some research suggests that instead, a child’s cognitive deficits, especially in emotional intelligence, may set off a chain of events leading to alcoholism.

Does this all contribute to the selfishness of the alcoholic? I believe that if we truly have a different reaction and are not able to fully understand other people’s expressions and emotions that it makes it a lot easier to only think about ourselves. If I’m having trouble understanding what’s going on with you, it just makes it that much easier to only focus on what’s going on with me. I have a hard enough time understanding my own emotions and feelings most of the time, so if I have something in my brain that makes it so I can’t read your emotions, then that makes perfect sense to me!

This research still should not be used as an excuse for us alcoholics to act like jerks. Now you know and knowing is half the battle. After all, we are very intelligent people and despite this information we are working one day at a time to become better and more productive people.

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