I didn’t drink at all in high school or college, and I don’t drink much now. I laugh and say it’s because I’m too much of a control-freak – which is part of the truth. But the larger truth is that my prefrontal cortex has enough challenges without me intentionally hampering its effectiveness. Our prefrontal cortex is the newest-evolved, top-most layer of our brain, and in many ways it is what makes us most “human.” It’s where we can think about our thoughts, our responses, our knee-jerk reactions. It’s the place of our “mind,” where we can be in control, versus our “brain.” It’s where compassion begins, along with judgement, rational thought, organization, and a whole host of “high-level functions” of our brain. I figure, between brain hemorrhages and depression and the constant juggling act of this 21st century life, I’m better off not adding a whole lot of alcohol to the mix.
But when I ran into my neighbor Luisa after dropping my 5 year old niece at the bus stop a couple of weeks ago, I had to wonder if my prefrontal cortex was still recovering from my brain hemorrhage. Anatomically, this makes no sense: My brain bleeds in the most primitive brain stem, deep within my skull, miles away from my frontal lobes. But when I saw Luisa, I realized just in the nick of time, I was about to exhibit some behaviors we normally associate with “sloppy drunks.” I had the urge to throw my arms around her, and sob into her shoulder, “We never see each other! We should be better friends! I miss being your friend! We definitely, definitely need to get together. Why don’t we ever get together? O, I am a horrible friend and neighbor.” Get the picture? Not pretty. Pretty embarrassing.
This is a perfect example of emotional lability that comes with strokes, alcohol and drug use, brain injuries, and apparently for me, brain hemorrhages. Thankfully, my prefrontal cortex was on-line enough that I stopped myself in time before making a fool of myself. Can you say, “Inappropriate?” My “filter” was not up to the task of a maintaining a socially appropriate simple neighborly interaction. I knew I wasn’t ready for work right then, because if ever there is a job that requires some emotional regulation, it’s pastoring.
That experience left me wondering how does alcohol impair our social judgment? Why do stroke survivors and people with tbi (traumatic brain injury) exhibit such out of control emotions? What is going on when we are hyper-stressed and our judgment isn’t always what it should be? Is it as simple as there isn’t enough blood flow to go around, and so the prefrontal cortex gets short-changed? I’m still digging into the research, but when we catch ourselves overly emotional, it’s probably good to take a step back, and ask, “What is going on here?” before we embarrass ourselves by unintentionally and inappropriately sobbing on an acquaintance’s shoulder for no apparent reason. Thankfully, our prefrontal cortex will show up to help us out; but sometimes we have to walk away to a quiet place, and remind it to get to work. That’s called mindfulness.