Monday, September 14, 2009

Doctor, look out!

I’ve never been much of a radio listener, so when I hear adverts on the commercial stations the form of the audio-only advert always strikes me – the techniques involved; the different methods used in the absence of visual aids. One advert that I noticed while staying with family recently (one of the few situations where I actually listen to radio, as opposed to podcasts) was on Kiss FM, and was a government sponsored anti-drug ad targeted at the mostly young Kiss audience. An actor played out a situation where they smoke a spliff, become paranoid and then get violent. I was reading a paper at the time and the radio was little more than background noise to me at that point, but once I focused on the ad I couldn’t help but release an audible exclamation. I’m sure that situations where cannabis users get paranoid exist, and a proportion of these may lead to extreme or even violent behaviour, but the idea that they were trying to promote this as likelihood rather than outside possibility incensed me.
I never enjoyed smoking cannabis back when I was a teen, though did sometimes enjoy the sensations that resulted, and I haven’t smoked or otherwise taken any in likely twelve years, but I can’t stand the hypocrisy that is flopped out time and time again when dealing with cannabis as opposed to the treatment given to alcohol. True, the government never condones binge drinking and the like, but you don’t need to binge to get a much higher proportion of people having reactions to alcohol that are far worse than those to smoking gear.
This is the TV version of the advert:

Despite the recent surfeit of blokey comedies in recent years, many of which are connected to the Apatow stable (who surprisingly has only directed three films to date but seems connected to dozens), it’s the Hangover that seems to be the enduring hit in the UK and is still screening in 21 screens as of September 12th despite having been released on June 12th, I’d be surprised if Mamma Mia had lasted much longer.
For a ‘bad taste’ comedy which not long ago would have invited comparisons with the films of the Farrelly brothers, the Hangover is pretty so-so with only a handful of belly laughs to be found in the overly familiar situation of people going to Vegas, over indulging and then engaging in a spot of OMG!!11! as they try to piece together the previous night. Perhaps the Great British public find the situations involving binge drinking comfortably familiar.

Unfortunately I’m no stranger to the concept of the lost night. A number of times I’ve found myself regaining consciousness the morning after and having no memory of what happened after a certain point. Regaining consciousness is not the most accurate way of putting it, as this implies passing out rather than blacking out, which is the phenomenon that I experience – a complete lack of knowledge of what I did or said, and then suddenly I’m back. A lot of the time it has to be said that it involved situations where a free bar led to me not keeping track of how much I’d had, or drinking at home or at parties meant that self-poured drinks contained undefined measures, but many is the time that I have eaten three meals, slept relatively well and only had 5 or so drinks before suddenly finding myself somewhere else at a later time. One study (GOODWIN, D.W; CRANE, J.B.; AND GUZE, S.B. Alcoholic "blackouts": A review and clinical study of 100 alcoholics. American Journal of Psychiatry 126:191-198, 1969) suggests that it is the concentration of alcohol in the blood that leads to blackouts, which is supported by the self-mixed and free-drink instances, although it would be interesting (and useful) to discover what variables resulted in blackouts in the cases where I consumed far less quantities and in seemingly ‘safer’ circumstances.

Some sort of homing instinct seems to get me back every time, though most recently I vaguely recall not being able to get into my flat and taking apart my wallet chain in order to try and pick the lock. I sat in my front doorway until half three in the morning when I remembered that my keys were in my back pocket.
I had been to a gig that night but do not remember a second of it; two CDs and a t-shirt testify to my presence there, and perhaps that I enjoyed it?
It’s not a happy time, as though I rarely get up to anything that I would be ashamed or embarrassed of in the cold light of day, it is uncomfortable to think of myself not in control of my actions. Am I really getting on with it, but much more drunkenly than usual, while the alcohol destroys the brain cells that record the memory of events? Or does another part of my consciousness take over while I am out of action – if so who is this version of me and where is he when I’m sober? More likely, but no more comforting, is the idea that excessive drinking leads to a form of anterograde amnesia – a state whereby you are unable to retain information so that you can still utilise skills you have learnt and can remember things before the amnesia took hold (usually due to brain injury), but anything that you experience afterwards is lost to your long term memory (most famously the basis for Christopher Nolan’s Memento).
Obviously in the case of binge drinking the effects are only temporary, with the ability to retain experience returning after the alcoholic influence subsides, but the idea that you can lose memory so utterly is disquieting.
Memory is ultimately the backbone of your very personality, formed as you are from the experiences and interpersonal exchanges that you build up over time – without these the ‘you’ that you take for granted when performing even the most cursory self reference as you look in the mirror in the morning would simply cease to be. You can lose snatches of it and still retain your essential self; but lose the lot and you are dead in mind if not in body. I find the physical connection between brain tissue and memory, and therefore the physical body and consciousness, to be the strongest argument against the popular idea of the immortal soul or reincarnation. Should the soul exist, it very well may ‘live’ on after your body dies, but once your brain is gone your consciousness goes with it – the ‘you’ that is reading and processing these words right now will cease to exist, which kind of makes the idea that you will meet your loved ones in heaven impossible – if brain damage can potentially destroy any memory you had of a husband or wife and a decades-long marriage, there’s no hope of retaining that information beyond the flesh and into the ethereal.

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