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Why Do People Get Emotional When They Drink?

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Drinking influences our personalities in a variety of ways. Some people get happy. Others turn combative or impulsive. At one time or another, though, we’ve all been the emotional drunk, a condition typically marked by ill-timed espousals of affection (or reprisal), acute introspection, and an uncontrollable urge to cry in the middle of a crowded bar. Alcohol impacts every organ system in the body, but its effect on the brain is what determines our behavior while under its sway. And our emotions, the crux of what makes us human, rarely escape unscathed. 

Once that shot of Maker’s reaches your stomach, a small portion of the alcohol is absorbed into the blood through the stomach lining, while the majority passes to the small intestine where it’s absorbed. Alcohol dissolves into the blood’s water, is carried through the bloodstream, and is processed by the liver before being excreted. Before that happens, though, it’s able to cross the blood-brain barrier, which means it can directly enter the brain through circulation. At this point, you’ll notice changes in behavior and thought processes. 

Alcohol is a depressant, but not in the way that an occasional drink will make us psychologically “depressed” (although research supports a correlation between heavy drinking and depression). Rather, a depressant incites a chemical reaction that slows down activity in the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) responsible for interpreting sensory cues, controlling motor function, thinking and reasoning, and regulating emotion.

Once the barrier is breached, alcohol settles into the outermost layer of our brain, the cerebral cortex. This thin layer of cells (also known as grey matter) covers the cerebrum and cerebellum and is responsible for processing sensory information and thoughts, and for initiating the majority of our voluntary muscle movements. Alcohol disrupts the normal flow of neurotransmitters across the cortex’s synaptic connections, and we enter an altered state. The first thing to go is our inhibitions, which the booze-free cortex would typically keep in check. We become more talkative and assured, and our better judgment begins to slip away.

As more drinks are consumed, these effects become increasingly pronounced and more of the brain is pulled into the mix. The limbic system, a set of six inner structures tucked under the cerebrum, is believed to be the emotional center of the brain and is tasked with controlling our emotions and behavior, and forming long-term memories. Once alcohol begins affecting the limbic system, you’re most likely drunk.

As in the cortex, booze interrupts the electrical signals between synapses, we’re unable to interpret information properly, and processes are thrown into flux. The limbic system, which would typically keep our emotions in check, now subjects us to mood swings and exaggerated states. This can manifest itself as misunderstanding somebody’s intentions (the cause of most bar fights), misunderstanding or amplifying your own feelings (the cause of most bar breakups), or simply saying something embarrassing or regrettable (the cause of most Sunday morning facepalms). Because the limbic system is also responsible for helping form memories, there’s the added chance that, if you go entirely off the deep end, you may not be able to remember what you said or did the next day. Our drunken emotions more often than not tend to be exaggerated versions of our sober personality (i.e., if you’re generally happy, drinking will likely just make you silly), so if you’re drama-prone to begin with, best to just stick with water.  

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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