I quit drinking a year and 3 months ago, but since then had 4-5 relapses. However, I have been completely free of mind-altering substances now for a full 6 months (exactly 6 months today, Huzzah!). The thought of having a drink seems foreign to me now, and despite having some heavy stress at work, I haven’t once thought of drinking to get through it. Rather it surprises me that I ever used this as a coping tool. I have been in some incredibly awkward and difficult situations, but ones that came about because I confronted issues that were necessary to work through, and it occurred to me that if I were still drinking I would have taken a lot longer to confront them. Rather I would have hidden behind my drinking, escaping into my world where memories are lost instead of made, and thought I was ‘coping’ because at least I have a few hours each night where I didn’t think about the stress. This way is so much better. Having said that, I have randomly had the thought of drinking pop into my head a few times out of the blue – all the terrible things it brings with it are forgotten for a brief moment in which the urge just comes on strong and fast. But I either distract myself or talk myself out of it, and then it is gone almost as fast as it comes on, and I am left wondering how it could have ever entered my mind.
Another strange thing has been happening lately. My senses have seemed to be heightened. In particular, I will be walking along the street and seem more acutely aware of the sounds around me, things happening in my peripheral vision, smells seem stronger, and the ‘atmosphere’ appears to be more present. Then at home I noticed that I keep telling my husband and daughter to turn things down, and that I don’t ask people to repeat themselves as much when I am talking to them. It occurred to me… does drinking affect your hearing? Your sight? Since alcohol is a GABA-A agonist, and GABA-A receptors are found throughout the entire brain (rather than being localised to more specific areas such as, say, dopamine neurons and receptors are) we could assume that alcohol does indeed affect the visual and auditory cortices, as much as any other brain region I have talked about on this blog. So I did some digging.
Alcohol affects hearing and vision and olfaction (smell)
Lo and behold, alcohol DOES affect your hearing, vision and olfaction! Whhhaaaaat???
I mean, it is fairly obvious that your senses are impaired when you are drunk (especially if the room is spinning, or you can’t keep your balance – something that relies heavily on hearing), and scientific studies back this up. In one study, cats were given different doses of ethanol, and the amplitude of electrical activity in the auditory cortex in responses to sound were measured. After consumption of the 10% solution amplitudes increased, but after 20 and 30% solutions they decreased. Similar results were recorded in humans (10 white males) who were measured using EEGs. But these are acute effects. In other words, these are the effects of one-off consumptions of alcohol, not long-term effects resulting from its long-term consumption.
It is important to know that how the brain co-ordinates vision and audition is a much more complex process than often realise, because we take so many of the underlying processes for granted. For example, our brains are constantly working out whether what we observe matches our experiences, whether to pay attention to something and what to pay attention to, and what information is irrelevant and should be filtered out. In order to achieve these processes and stitch them together to form the unified, uninterrupted representation of our environment that we experience as consciousness, various underlying cognitive processes are also necessary. Indeed, to determine if current experiences matches things we have observed in the past or are novel, we must retrieve past experiences from memory. Memory is therefore involved in perception. Moreover, to determine what is important and should be attended to, emotions are often relied upon. Therefore, emotions must be integrated with sensory information to determine attention, and attention, in turn, of course informs what is sensed and what is ignored (i.e. you can’t see something if you’re not looking at it). When these processes come naturally we barely notice the array of complex computations that underlie them, but when they go awry, they can result in a number of different neuropsychological deficits, with schizophrenia known as one of the most common.
Prefrontal cortex (mild sciencey bit)
It turns out that the prefrontal cortex (among others), which is a region of the brain heavily affected in alcoholics, is also heavily implicated in many of the cognitive processes underlying sensory integration, and as a result, over-consumption of alcohol over a long period of time can affect these underlying processes. The result of this is a dulled experience of perception that can last for several months into early recovery. However, they do seem to abate after several months (although perhaps not as drastically if you have drunk so much as to have caused Korsakoff’s syndrome, a type of dementia caused by over-consumption of alcohol and under-consumption of thiamine), which I believe is the reason why the world seems to be a brighter, smellier, and noisier place to me now. It isn’t a huge shift, but it is noticeable, and it is wonderful, and it is something I don’t want to lose again. I should also note that alcohol can damage the sense organs themselves, such as the retina, damage which may also not be reversible.
Emerging from the fog
I have heard many people describe early recovery as ‘emerging from the fog of addiction’ and it certainly felt that way to me. However, I have been pleasantly surprised to find out that this emergence only gets better and more intense over time – months even. I know, of course, that some of this fog was caused by dulling of cognitive capacities that had nothing to do with perception, but I am surprised to find out that some of it did. I hope it keeps getting better.