With New Year's Eve coming up soon, this seems to be a good time to share some passages about the positive side of intoxication from a book I just finished, "Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity."
The author, Edward Slingerland, discusses the ins and outs (along with the yin and yang) of wu-wei, the elusive quality of effortlessly flowing with life so much praised in Daoist and Confucian philosophy.
Slingerland, a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia, clued me in to some aspects of both Asian and Western culture that had largely escaped me before.
For example, why getting wasted -- imbibing copious amounts of alcohol or some other intoxicating, mind-altering, inhibition-dampening substance -- is so important in closing business deals, as well as in other social contexts.
The basic reason is that we admire and trust good-hearted people who act naturally, spontaneously, unselfconsciously. Schemers who always seem to be calculating what to do and how to act, not nearly so much, even if they proclaim their beneficent intentions.
Slingerland explains from both a philosophical and neuroscientific outlook that virtue (de, in Chinese) can be faked by what often is called "cold cognition."
That's the slower, more intellectual, thoughtful part of the brain's workings. This is contrasted with "hot cognition," which is faster, more emotional and intuitive. So, Slingerland says:
These techniques take advantage of the fact that deception is fundamentally a cold-cognition act and relies on cognitive control centers. This means that if we can impair the cognitive control abilities of people we're trying to judge, we'll do a better job of sussing them out: they will be less likely to confuse our cheater-control systems.
This, of course, is the rationale for so-called "truth serum" drugs used by interrogators. Lessen inhibitions and what a person says should more accurately reflect what is really inside them, not just how they want to appear to outsiders.
Here's a passage from "Trying Not to Try" about some social benefits of intoxication.
...One of the primary effects of alcohol and other intoxicants is to "downregulate," or temporarily paralyze, areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with cognitive control. A couple shots of tequila is the liquid equivalent of a nice jolt of TMS [transcranial magnetic stimulation].
It's therefore no accident that intoxicants of various sorts are frequently employed by human beings as social lubricants. Alcohol, kava, cannabis, magic mushrooms, you name it: any intoxicant that people can get their hands on quickly comes to play a central role in social occasions, both formal and informal.
In ancient China, no major treaty was signed without first bringing everyone together in an extended, alcohol-soaked banquet. In fact, this is one feature of Chinese culture that has not changed a bit in over four thousand years.
Any modern businessperson hoping to ink a deal with Chinese partners had better get his or her liver in shape first.
On a less formal level, this is no doubt why intoxicants are a universal feature of all sorts of human social gatherings, from casual cocktail parties to fraternity mixers. Not only is getting drunk pleasant, it also typically causes people to get along more freely and easily (at least to a certain point, after which the drunken fights break out).
Intoxication enhances cooperation in at least two ways First of all, it reduces social faking by inhibiting cognitive control centers. Second, if we all get drunk together, we create a situation of mutual vulnerability that makes trust easier to establish.
Getting drunk is essentially an act of mental disarmament. In the same way that shaking right hands with someone assures them that you're not holding a weapon, downing a few tequila shots is like checking your prefrontal cortex at the door.
See? No cognitive control. You can trust me.
A page later, Slingerland says:
Similar studies have suggested that -- at least for inhabitants of Western, industrialized cultures -- people are spontaneously generous if forced to make instant decisions but begin to gravitate toward more selfish strategies if given time to think.
All this suggests that honest behavior is governed by automatic mental processes, whereas controlled processes are involved in lying or faking. In other words, effortless unselfconscious behavior -- behavior that is wu-wei -- acts like a window into our true character.
So may we all be happy, truthful, free-flowing wu-wei drunks, whether or not we choose to imbibe physical intoxicants.