People who go out binge-drinking have to work their brains harder than normal in order to feel empathy for others in pain, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of Sussex observed the brain functions of 71 volunteers from the UK and France while they undertook a pain perception task.
Half of the people taking in part in the study were classed as binge-drinkers and half of them weren’t, the researchers said. All the volunteers were sober during the test.
The definition of a binge-drinker is someone that consumers the equivalent of three quarters of a bottle of wine or two and a half pints of lager in a single sitting.
Binge-drinkers regularly showed greater signs of dysfunction in the area of their brains linked to empathy than those who don’t regularly drink alcohol.
They also struggled more than those that don’t binge-drink when trying to ‘adopt the perspective of another person experiencing pain’, the authors said.
People who go out binge-drinking have to work their brains harder than normal in order to feel empathy for others in pain, according to a new study. Stock image
Volunteers were shown a range of images (pictured) showing painful injuries to limbs and asked to either imagine it was happening to them or someone else
In the task, participants were shown an image of a limb being injured, and had to imagine the body part was either theirs or that of another person.
Volunteers then had to state how much pain they thought was associated with the injury shown in the image.
BINGE-DRINKING: AT LEAST 2.1OZ OF PURE ALCOHOL A MONTH
Binge-drinking has a specific definition – it isn’t going out for a heavy night.
A binge-drinker is someone who consumers more than 2.1oz (60g) of pure alcohol in a single sitting at least once per month.
That is about three quarters of a bottle of wine, or 2½ pints of lager.
According to the NHS binge-drinking is drinking more than:
- 8 units of alcohol in a single session for men
- 6 units of alcohol in a single session for women
About 30 per cent of all people over 15 years of age who drink alcohol in UK and France met the criteria for ‘binge-drinker’, study authors claim.
‘[Bing-drinkers] took more time to respond and the scans revealed that their brains had to work harder – to use more neural resources – to appreciate how intensely another person would feel pain,’ the team wrote.
In fact they were ‘significantly slower’ than people who don’t binge-drink – taking 2.4 seconds to respond to pain in imaginary strangers compared to 2.07 seconds for a non-drinker.
This suggests that binge-drinkers’ brains have to work much harder in order to process other people’s pain.
The study revealed a more widespread dysfunction in the brain of binge-drinkers related to empathy than previously realised.
A visual area of the brain, which is involved in recognising body parts, showed unusually high levels of activation in the binge-drinkers.
This was not true in the non-binge drinkers who looked at the same images.
When the binge-drinkers were asked to imagine the injured body part in the picture as their own, their pain estimate was not different from that of their non-binge drinking counterparts.
The difference came when they tried to imagine the limb belonged to another.
Professor Theodora Duka from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex has been studying the effects of excessive alcohol consumption for years.
Binge-drinking is defined as consuming more than 2.1oz (60g) of pure alcohol – equivalent to about three quarters of one bottle of wine, or 2½ pints of lager – on at least one occasion in the past 30 days, she said.
About 30 per cent of all adults over 15 years of age who drink alcohol in UK and France meet the criteria for ‘binge-drinker’.
‘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,’ she explained.
The goal of this study was to find out whether binge-drinkers showed less empathy when compared to non-binge drinkers – and they found it to be true.
‘Reduced empathy in binge drinkers may facilitate drinking as it can blunt the perception of suffering of self or others during a drinking session,’ said Duka.
‘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.’
People who binge-drink regularly showed signs of dysfunction in the area of their brains linked to empathy than those who don’t regularly drink alcohol. Stock image
Dr Charlotte Rae from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex said the results were ‘surprising’.
‘Our data show that binge-drinkers need to work harder to feel empathy for other people in pain,’ said Rae, adding ‘they need to use more resources in terms of higher brain activity than non-binge drinkers.’
This means that in everyday life people who binge-drink may struggle to perceive the pain of others as easily as people who don’t drink to excess.
‘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,’ Rae explained.
‘However, under certain circumstances when resources become limited, binge drinkers may struggle to engage in an empathic response to others.’
The findings have been published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.