Numb to the world: Binge drinkers’ brains must work harder to feel empathy

BRIGHTON, United Kingdom — Alcohol has been used to “numb the pain” for centuries. According to a new study, it also works well at numbing empathy and compassion in people as well. Researchers from the University of Sussex conclude a binge drinker’s brain must try harder to feel empathy.

A series of MRI brain scans show that binge-drinkers display extensive dysfunction across their brains. More specifically, 71 participants had their brains scanned while engaging in a pain perception task. The team classified half of the participants as being binge drinkers.

During the task, participants viewed an image of a limb being injured. Researchers then asked the group to imagine that the limb was either theirs or someone else’s and then estimate how painful the injury would be. Binge drinkers had a much harder time taking on the perspective of another person. It took these participants longer to produce an answer in such scenarios. Also, their MRIs reveal their brains use more “neural resources” to gain any level of empathy.

Conversely, binge drinkers did just fine when it came time to imagine themselves being hurt. So, alcohol doesn’t appear to have an impact on self-preservation.

“I have been studying the effects of drinking excessive alcohol for many years. In that time I have built up a strong body of evidence about the widespread way in which binge-drinking is associated with brain dysfunction in areas supporting self-control and attention. Our aim with the present study was to examine whether binge drinkers show less empathy and their brains show different responses to non-binge drinkers, when they imagine another person in pain,” says Professor Theodora Duka in a university release.

Binge drinkers literally view the world differently

The British team noted a second, more widespread, variety of dysfunction among binge-drinkers as well. These participants showed abnormal, elevated activity in the visual portion of their minds responsible for recognizing body parts.

“Reduced empathy in binge drinkers may facilitate drinking as it can blunt the perception of suffering of self or others during a drinking session. We have shown with this study that dysfunction associated with binge drinking is even more extensive than previously known. A region of the brain called the Fusiform Body Area associated with recognition of body parts showed hyperactivity in binge-drinkers in a situation in which feelings of empathy are experienced,” Professor Duka adds.

“Our results are quite surprising. Our data show that binge drinkers need to work harder to feel empathy for other people in pain. They need to use more resources in terms of higher brain activity than non-binge drinkers. 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,” concludes Dr. Charlotte Rae from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

“It’s not that binge drinkers feel less empathy – it’s just that they have to put more brain resource into being able to do so. However, under certain circumstances when resources become limited, binge drinkers may struggle to engage in an empathic response to others.”

The study is published in NeuroImage: Clinical.