Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Why I Am So Clever 

Every drunk I know is completely up-to-date on one branch of the health sciences: the branch that tells us that drinking makes us healthy. Apparently drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can reduce a drinkers chances of suffering from heart disease, arthritis, cancer, Parkinson's disease, stroke, and senile dementia.

What's more, a lot of this "moderate" business is bunk. The beneficial effects of drinking don't simply stop after two glasses of wine. More wine might be even better for your heart than less wine, but it's harder on other organs and is connected to social pathologies, so doctors are reluctant to tout the benefits of binge drinking. For the average person, the risks of drinking more probably outweighed the benefits. But if you've got a weak heart and a liver of steel, that extra glass might save your life.

Or maybe not. Just as I was preparing for a three pinot grigio lunch over at the MoMA's Modern this afternoon, I stumbled across this article by Dennis Mangan (via Steve Sailer). Lab scientist Mangan points out that there are more drinkers among highly educated and high income people than among the less educated and poor.

And all of those highly-educated, high income earning people are also more intelligent. They have better health, fewer accidents, and greater longevity. And they drink. Therefore, I would suggest that the higher IQ of all those drinkers is the 'fundamental cause' of their better health."

So, we're going to live longer because we're smarter and richer not because we're drunker? On the one hand, for a contrarian student of human diversity, this kind of hypothesis is inherently attractive because it breaks the official tabby against talking about the importance of IQ. One the other, well, I'm not giving up my the old family remedy of Jameson's over ice that easily.

So I want to propose a third alternative. What if we're smarter, richer and healthier because we drink more? I don't think that this is any less plausible than the idea that television and video games make us more intelligent.

Let's be clear about this. I'm not talking about the old barfly theory that because drinking kills brain cells, the process of alcoholic selection leaves only the fittest and most efficient brain cells surviving. In fact, recent studies have shown that drinking may improve cognitive function by doing exactly the opposite: by increasing the production of brain cells. More than one study has indeed found increased cognitive ability in drinkers.

Steven Johnson's theory about brain boosting media posits a theory of "cognitively demanding leisure." Perhaps, however, IQ can be increased by "relaxing leisure." If increased psychological stress might has deleterious effects on mental development, perhaps a couple of glasses of good whiskey puts the brain back on track.

A recent study of the brains of Buddhist monks found striking differences in the brain functions of those with the most experience with meditation. "Activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the locus of joy, overwhelmed activity in the right prefrontal cortex, the locus of anxiety," the New York Times reported. Might not regular drinking cause a similar shift in the way the brain functions and repairs itself?

You can imagine how this mechanism could develop through evolution. In the primordial environment of human evolution, conservation of biological resources would have been very important. During periods of drought or famine (or other stressful events), when survival depended on just gathering enough fruit and killing enough antelope, it might have been advantageous for the brain to slow down its cognitive repairs, especially since there might not have been enough leisure time for higher cogntivie functions to produce any real pay-off. But during periods when dangers of perishing were less immediate, it would have been advantageous for the brain to switch back to cognitive function upkeep. When leisure was available, there would be more time for problem solving and more rewards for increased cognitive function.

If this is right, drinking might be a way of fooling the body into thinking a stressful period of life is actually leisure time, thereby causing it to continue its brain boosting work.

Finally, I know for a fact that heavy drinking has made me smarter, because I don't remember ever doing anything stupid while blacked out.