Popular Science Monthly/Volume 83/September 1913/In Quest of the Alcohol Motive
|IN QUEST OF THE ALCOHOL MOTIVE|
STATE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA
ONE of the problems which has been definitely set for psychologists to solve during the twentieth century is the cause of the almost universal desire for alcohol. It is a curious fact that in the thousands and hundreds of thousands of books, articles and writings of every description relating to the many phases of the alcohol problem, this simple and fundamental question—Why do men desire alcohol?—has until recently never been carefully considered at all and even now has not been answered. The belief that the desire for alcohol is due to total depravity or original sin seems to be about as far as we have got in answering this question. One author wrote a serious article not long ago to show that the cause of drinking is to be attributed to bad cooking in the home! He evidently did not appreciate the fact that the desire for alcohol, as well as its use, is at least as old as the lake dwellers of the neolithic age. Few if any savage tribes known to anthropologists, whether in ancient or in modern times, except certain tribes of Eskimos who have no fruit or grain from which alcohol can be prepared, have been without this drug or some other having similar properties. The discovery and use of alcohol have not spread from tribe to tribe, but have been autochthonic, arising independently in all parts of the world. So keen has been the desire for alcohol and so eager the quest for it, that always and everywhere some means have been discovered by which this water of life could be expressed from fruit, or grain, or vegetable.
And yet we do not even know why it is desired.
The whole vast machinery of the temperance movement, employing thousands of skilled and zealous workers, controlling large sums of money, and making use of wise educational, social and legislative methods, seems to have accomplished little or nothing in reducing the consumption of alcohol. At the very time that legislative and social control of the manufacture, sale and use of alcoholic liquors is extended over larger and larger portions of our country, the relentless figures of the U. S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue show that year by year with almost fateful regularity the per capita consumption of these liquors is increasing instead of decreasing.
The following table shows the per capita consumption of all liquors in the United States from the year 1850 to the year 1911, inclusive:
Per Capita Consumption of all Wines and Liquors
These figures should not be interpreted as showing the failure of the various means used for the limitation of the sale of intoxicating drinks. There is every reason for believing that these means are in a high degree effective and that without them the increase in the use of alcohol would have been much greater than it has been. The true meaning of the figures is, rather, to show the increasing force of this desire in modern society.
There are, of course, other great human desires besides the desire for alcohol, but in respect to these other desires it seems less difficult to explain the cause. It is not difficult to explain the desire for bread, nor the keen interest in all matters relating to the means of acquiring it. Problems of labor and capital, problems of high prices, problems of production and distribution of food, relate more or less directly to the bread question and become thus wholly intelligible, because bread is necessary to life. Neither is it difficult to understand another profound human desire, which involves serious social problems, the desire of the sexes for each other. Difficult as these social problems may be, the psychologist's part presents here less difficulty, for the place of this great passion in human economy is clear.
The desire for alcohol approaches the above desires as regards both its force and its universality, but its place in human economy is not thus far clear.
The following familiar statistics are not cited in this case to show the extent of "human depravity," nor to point out an "evil" to be suppressed, but rather to indicate the force of a human desire whose cause we seek to determine.
The people of the United States are now consuming annually about 2,000 million gallons of malt liquors, nearly 64 million gallons of wine and more than 138 million gallons of distilled liquors. In Germany the per capita consumption of distilled liquors is about the same as in this country, while their consumption of malt liquors is, per capita, about one third larger than ours and of wine about twice as large. In England the per capita consumption of malt liquors is still greater than it is in Germany, while the consumption of wine and distilled liquors is somewhat less than in Germany or in the United States.
It is little to the point to call attention to the fact, as has often been done, that the cost of alcoholic drinks to the German people, which is about 3,000 million Marks per year, is nearly three and one quarter times the total cost of their army and navy combined; the cost should rather be compared with other "necessities" of life, such as bread and meat. The force of the desire for alcohol is better shown by noting that its cost to the German people is about the same in amount as their total expenditures for meat, fish and fowl combined, and only one eighth less than their total expenditures for bread, meal, bakery goods and potatoes combined. In this country we have no means of determining accurately the outlay of the people for alcoholic liquors, but we know that the wholesale value of the malt, vinous and distilled liquors produced annually in the United States is approximately six hundred million dollars, almost the same as the total value of our wheat crop. These figures do not take into account the value of wines and liquors imported, nor the output of illicit distilleries. Of these illicit stills, according to the last report of the U. S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 2,466 were seized and destroyed during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1912.
An intense human interest clusters around everything connected with alcohol. The very names of the countless forms of beverages, as well as their odors, tastes and colors are all interesting. Language itself reflects the depth of this interest, particularly in the many synonyms for intoxication. Partridge, in his book on "The Psychology of Intemperance," gives a list of about 370 words and phrases in English expressive of intoxication, and he says that a list of more than 600 words in German has been collected. In his opinion nothing except the sexual relation has made a stronger impression upon popular language.
The praise of wine has been celebrated in the poetry of every age. Drinking songs have a peculiar charm. In the history both of religion and of medicine, alcohol has occupied a prominent place and in some form it has been regarded as a cure for every ill. Huge volumes could be filled with the legislative acts of civilized people in their efforts to regulate its sale and use. In recent years an almost incredible number of books and articles has appeared relating to some phase or other of this subject.
It is evident, then that there exists in the human mind, for some reason or other, a profound, persistent and intense desire for alcohol. The psychologist is interested in discovering the cause of this desire and the sociologist well knows that it will not be until this cause has been determined that any real progress will be made in solving the social problem of alcohol.
How, then, shall the cause of the desire for alcohol be determined? It would seem a priori improbable that anything so profoundly and universally desired should not answer to some real need of the human organism. It is clear, therefore, that the first thing to do is to make a scientific study of alcohol and its relation to the body and mind. It is only in recent years that any real attempt has been made to carry out such studies, but they have already cast a flood of light upon the subject. Physiological, psychological and sociological laboratories, hospitals and asylums, medical records and the reports of life insurance companies have all contributed to give us a more accurate knowledge of the action of alcohol on the human body and the human mind and to pave the way for a scientific theory of the alcohol motive. These researches are particularly instructive for the reason that they deal with the real question, i. e., with the effects of alcohol in moderate doses, not with its excessive use. The literature on inebriety, alcoholism and intemperance has always been sufficiently abundant.
It would be impossible in an article of this length to attempt even the briefest summary of these researches. It will be sufficient simply to recall the more important conclusions.
1. The desire for alcoholic drinks is due to the presence of ethyl alcohol, . Beer, ale, wine, and even whiskey and brandy, have characteristic odors, pleasant to many people and ravishing to some, but it is not on this account that they are desired. The pleasantness of the tastes and odor are largely if not wholly due to association with ethyl alcohol.
2. It is not on account of its food value that alcohol is desired. The researches of Atwater and others have seemed to show rather conclusively that a certain amount of alcohol, say two and one half ounces per day, may under favorable circumstances be oxidized in the body and so act as a substitute for other food by furnishing heat and possibly energy. It is not claimed, however, by those who hold that alcohol may in some cases act as a food that it is on this account that it is desired. The history of drinking, which shows that it has been wholly convivial among primitive people and that it is still largely so, precludes this view. It is only in modern industrial drinking that any attempt has been made to work on alcohol or to live on it, and here the attempt has not been successful, as Sullivan has shown in his careful and painstaking work on "A``lcoholism."
3. It has now been pretty definitely shown that alcohol is not a stimulant, and thus there is overthrown at once the most commonly accepted theory as to the cause of the desire for it. Alcohol acts as a depressant upon all forms of life from the simplest micro-organism to the most complex nervous structures in the human brain. It is interesting, however, to call attention to the fact, especially since a few physiologists still claim that under some circumstances it may act as a stimulant to certain bodily organs, that if alcohol were a stimulant, this would not, after all, afford any evidence that it plays a useful part in human economy. A stimulant as such adds nothing to human economy, whether such economy is considered from the standpoint of the race or of the individual. It offers no gain in the long run and could be of no real advantage in the struggle for existence. A stimulant can be serviceable only in emergency cases and under abnormal conditions and as such can not serve as an explanation for a desire extending to nearly all people in all periods of history.
4. The supposition may be made that alcohol increases muscular efficiency, at least temporarily, and that the desire for it may be explained in this way, but the experimental evidence forbids this view. Many series of experiments have been made by Warren, Frey, Schnyder, Destree, Tavernari, Kraepelin, Féré, Partridge, Elvers and others, using the ergograph and other forms of dynamometer, to determine the effect of small doses of alcohol upon muscular power and efficiency. These experiments have shown that, as the result of small, or so-called normal doses of alcohol, there is a slight initial increase of muscular power followed by a decrease, so that on the whole the results reveal a loss rather than a gain in efficiency. With an increase in the size of the doses, the decrease in efficiency is greater. Later experiments carried out by Elvers and Webber, using a control drink so that the subjects did not know when alcohol had been administered, showed no initial increase of power whatever. Elvers believing that the increase shown in other experiments was due to suggestion. There seems some ground for believing that alcohol, while it does not increase muscular efficiency, shortens reaction-time at first and facilitates the liberation of energy. This may account to some extent for the feeling of increased efficiency which follows the ingestion of alcohol. If it be true that it shortens reaction-time and facilitates the liberation of energy, it still does not appear that this would offer any explanation for the world-wide desire for it. It has not been shown that any decided advantage accrues from the shortening of reaction-time or the quicker liberation of energy. The normal reaction-time and the normal liberation of energy would seem in the long run to be more advantageous, Kraepelin's conclusion is that the laborer who gains his livelihood by the strength of his arm destroys by the use of alcohol the very foundation of his efficiency. The experiments of Hodge, with retrieving dogs showed that the dogs given alcohol did about half as much work as the normal animals. The experiments of Durig in mountain climbing, with and without alcohol, showed that moderate doses of alcohol resulted in a loss of about 20 per cent, in efficiency,
5. Alcohol, again, does not increase mental efficiency. The experiments of Kraepelin and his associates show that moderate doses of alcohol exert a deadening influence on all mental processes. Apprehension is slower, accuracy is lessened, errors are increased, and memory is impaired. The character of associations is also unfavorably affected, the number of higher logical associations being decreased while associations depending upon similarity and contiguity in time and space are increased. Schnidman made experiments on the effect of alcohol in the work of translating from one language to another, with the result that under the influence of small doses of alcohol there was an increase of errors and a decrease of rapidity. The experiments of Lieutenant Boy upon Swedish soldiers in revolver and rifle shooting with and without alcohol showed that accuracy was affected unfavorably by the drug. Mayer found that the speed of writing was lessened by alcohol. In Dr. Aschaffenburg's experiments with typesetters, he found that there was an average impairment of efficiency amounting to about 9 per cent, as the result of small doses of alcohol. Smith experimented on the effect of small doses of alcohol upon memory processes when the drug was administered for successive days. The alcohol in these experiments was administered in the evening and was found to exert a damaging effect upon the memory processes to a very marked degree, the effect increasing from day to day. Fürer found that 80 c.c. of alcohol taken in the evening was followed by increased errors in choice-reactions during the whole of the following day.
Experiments such as the above are difficult to carry out and possible sources of error may enter. It is highly desirable that still further researches should be made in this direction, eliminating every possible source of error. The work to be undertaken in this field by the Carnegie Institution under the direction of Dr. Benedict and Dr. Raymond Dodge will be awaited with great interest. It may safely be said, however, that the experimental evidence is already sufficient to show that it is not on account of any increased mental efficiency due to alcohol that the world-wide desire for it is to be explained. The testimony of Helmholtz in his speech at Berlin on the occasion of his seventieth birthday is significant in this connection. Speaking of the conditions under which he had had his most brilliant intuitions, he said that the smallest amount of alcohol seemed to frighten them away.
The experimental evidence of the damaging effect of alcohol on physical and mental efficiency is confirmed by the practical experience of railroads, steamship companies, shops, manufacturing establishments, contractors, surveying and exploring parties, athletic teams, etc. An increasingly large number of railroads forbid the use of alcoholic liquors to their employees, in some cases even when off duty, while in shops and in mercantile establishments of all kinds statistics show a significant increase of accidents and decrease of efficiency immediately following Sundays and holidays.
If next we consider the contributions of recent science to the use of alcohol in its relation to human health and longevity, we are again met with disappointment in our quest for the explanation of its use. Alcohol was formerly very freely used by in both surgery and medicine, but faith in its therapeutic powers has now been almost wholly lost. The figures given by Horsley showing the decrease in the use of alcohol in English hospitals and asylums during the last twenty years are exceedingly striking. In surgery alcohol has been replaced by antiseptics and in medicine by milk and eggs. Alcohol has now come to be regarded by physicians not as a cure for disease, but as a prolific cause of it. As an excretory product of the yeast plant, its action upon higher organisms is that of a toxin. Its regular moderate use renders the individual less resistant to disease and its excessive use brings a long list of diseases in its train.
The influence of alcohol upon longevity has now been studied with some thoroughness by physicians and actuaries and some definite results have been gained, although here much work needs to be done. The results show at any rate that alcohol does not increase longevity and hence we have here again no clue to the world-wide desire for it. Robert Mackenzie Moore, actuary of the United Kingdom Temperance and General Provident Institute, in a recent report based upon sixty years' experience of that company in the insurance of the lives of abstainers and non-abstainers (the latter being moderate drinkers and good risks and belonging to the same class and following the same occupations as the former), found that in respect to longevity the abstainers showed a marked superiority over the non-abstainers throughout the whole period of life for every class of policies and for both sexes, however tested. For instance, at the age of 30 the expectation of life for the non-abstainers is 35.1 years; for the abstainers, 38.8 years, a difference of nearly 11 per cent. At the age of 40, the percentage of difference is the same. Another very thorough and impartial investigation has been made by Mr. Edward B. Phelps on the mortality due to alcohol. It is based on the testimony of the medical directors of three prominent life-insurance companies of America. Mr. Phelps's conclusion is that 8 per cent, of all deaths of adults in the United States are due to alcohol.
If we turn finally to the social relations of men in our search for an explanation for the universal desire for alcohol, our reward is even less. Alcohol indeed encourages sociability, but it would be hard to show that this in itself is a benefit proportional to the desire for it, and we find in connection with its use a long list of social evils, such as poverty, crime and racial degeneracy. These evils are connected for the most part with the excessive use of alcohol and consequently they interest us only indirectly here; but it would appear to be one more disadvantage to be attributed to alcohol that its moderate use is apt to issue in excessive use and so lead to many unhappy and disagreeable consequences, such as drunkenness, disability for work, domestic trouble, poverty, crime and degeneracy of offspring.
We are thus brought finally face to face with the question, Why do men desire alcohol? The theories hitherto advanced in explanation of the alcohol motive have failed to take into account certain essential facts in regard to the problem and have therefore been incomplete. Among these facts are the following: The desire for alcohol is common both to civilized and uncivilized man. It tends to increase rather than to decrease with the advance of civilization in spite of vigorous and to some extent successful efforts to restrain it. It has reached an unparalleled degree of intensity at the present time in prosperous communities relatively rich in comforts and luxuries. It is strong, again, in industrial and manufacturing centers among plodding and underpaid laborers. It is somewhat stronger in northern progressive races than among the less progressive southern people. It is particularly characteristic of the adult male individual, the desire being decidedly less strong in women and children. It is not an appetite in the ordinary sense of the word, as it answers to no inner need of the body so far as is known. To these facts should be added those specially noted above, namely, that alcohol apparently adds nothing to either physical or mental efficiency, that it contributes nothing to health or longevity, and does not enhance social well-being.
Is it possible to explain the desire for alcohol on the ground of its immediate pleasurable mental effects? It deadens pain to some extent and drives away care. It produces a feeling of euphoria, of well-being, comfort, contentment, ease and inner harmony. Under the influence of alcohol many of the unpleasant feelings accompanying the daily drudgery of life temporarily disappear or are at least alleviated, such, for instance, as fatigue, apprehension, fear, worry, anxiety and to some extent physical pain. Selecting one from any number of illustrations which might be drawn from literature, we read in Gösta Berling:
Another author, picturing the hopeless grinding toil of the coal miner, his monotonous and unillumined life, his long work day, his hasty and insufficient supper and his hard bed, says that at the end of the week when a little respite comes, the "demand for joy" drives this coal miner to the saloon.
But this explanation, at first sight partially adequate, when more carefully considered, encounters serious difficulties and only adds to the obscurity of the subject. Are we to understand that the desire for alcohol is due to the "demand for joy"? There never was a time in the history of the world when, quite apart from alcohol, joys were so abundant as they are in America at the present day. The rich have every comfort and luxury and the poor have every humane consideration, while laborers have shorter hours, better pay, better food and better clothes and more books, papers and other forms of entertainment than ever before in the world's history. We are comparatively prosperous, happy and well fed, have abundant leisure and countless comforts, yet it appears that we need 2,000 million gallons of alcoholic liquors yearly to complete our "joy." Furthermore, if this were the correct theory, it would be impossible to explain the lesser desire for alcohol among women, for although at present in America the lot of woman is a relatively happy one, this has not been the case among primitive people, nor in historic times, nor even in other countries at the present time. Her life has been relatively monotonous and laborious and her joys and amusements have been fewer.
But serious psychological objections to this theory appear also. Joy and pleasure are the mental accompaniments of physical wellbeing, of mental and physical health, while alcohol acts as a poison in the presence of all forms of life. Against this apparent contradiction little is gained by saying that the joy of alcohol is an abnormal joy answering to an abnormal or diseased condition. The desire is too universal, too fundamental, so to speak, for that. Or if we say that alcohol brings an immediate and temporary joy, while its poisonous effects are delayed, we encounter two difficulties, first the difficulty of showing what particular kind of benefit corresponds to the immediate and temporary joy, and second the difficulty of explaining on any principles of evolution the desire for a drug whose effects are on the whole injurious—a desire which is so strong and so universal as almost to merit the name of an instinct. This seems to be a kind of deadlock to any further progress in arriving at a theory of alcohol. But the joys of alcohol are evident and its injurious effects are equally evident. It is clear, therefore, that the "demand for joy" theory is only a superficial statement of a certain truth whose explanation lies deeper.
But leaving for the moment the "demand for joy" theory, let us consider the view that alcohol banishes care and drives away sorrow and pain, in other words, that it is narcotic in its action, a kind of. sedative or anesthetic. This theory seems at first sight to account for some of the facts. It is now generally, though not quite universally, admitted by physiologists that alcohol is not a stimulant but a narcotic. It apparently paralyzes the higher brain centers and in thus inhibiting the inhibitory centers produces effects resembling stimulation. furthermore, pain, sorrow and care are ever present in human life, making the universality of the desire thus far intelligible.
But clearly the narcotic theory encounters difficulties from the same sources as the "demand for joy" theory. It fails first to account for the lesser desire among women, who have certainly at all times had their share of sorrow, pain and care. It fails likewise to account for the increase of the desire in times of prosperity and activity, or in times like the present of improved hygiene, increased longevity and multiplied pleasures and comforts. Finally, the narcotic theory, if it were true, would seem to be nature's checkmate upon itself, for pain in all its forms is evidently purposive. Are we to suppose that nature has discovered a way to tear down its own danger signals? The narcotic theory would be available only in respect to times of degeneration and national decay, Nordau, who explains the desire for alcohol in this way, regards the present as such a time of degeneration, and Partridge, who recognizes the narcotic motive as one of the elements in the desire, seems to think that so far as it is present it betokens "old age and disease in a nation." But since the desire flourishes most strongly, as we have seen, in times of great national vigor, such for instance as prevail at the present time in Germany, England and America, the narcotic theory seems to fail. Nevertheless, it may appear below that the narcotic motive is present, after all, only not in the form hitherto recognized.
Another writer, Reid, has broached the theory that the desire for alcohol is a by-product of evolution, a specific craving which nothing but alcohol will satisfy. It is coextensive with the human race and harmful in its results, and is to be met in only-one way, namely, by the automatic action of "evolution against alcohol," by the action of natural selection in gradually eliminating those not immune to the desire. It is part of Reid's theory to maintain that the people of southern Europe have become partly immune to alcohol, owing to its abundant supply, and are therefore more temperate. Almost all the facts upon which this theory is based are open to doubt.
Partridge, while recognizing the narcotic motive in the desire for alcohol, "the longing to escape from pain, to seek relief in inactivity and rest, a turning backward from the strenuous life," apparently believes that the so-called "intoxication motive" is more important. It springs from the desire for states of consciousness of higher intensity, for feelings of exaltation, for life and life more abundant, for freedom and expansion, for states of higher tension. It is the erethic impulse, a craving for excitement. But the evidence is overwhelming, as we have seen, that alcohol, so far from contributing to the more abundant life, contributes from every point of view to the less abundant life, and as for the desire for states of higher tension, there is every reason to believe, as will be shown in what follows, that alcohol produces states of lower tension and is desired for precisely this reason. And if the desire for alcohol were due to a longing for excitement, life, tension, movement, this longing would seem to be well satisfied by the conditions in modern American cities without recourse to 2.,000 million gallons of alcoholic liquors yearly.
Any satisfactory theory of the alcohol impulse must not only take account of the facts to be explained, some of which we have mentioned above, but it must also be grounded on an accurate knowledge of the whole life history of man, particularly his mental development and the corresponding development of the brain. It would be necessary, furthermore, for such a theory that we should have an accurate knowledge of the action of alcohol on the human brain. Neither psychology nor physiology is able as yet to furnish this knowledge completely, so that any theory of the alcohol motive must be tentative, awaiting further scientific advance. The following observations, therefore, although for brevity's sake put in somewhat dogmatic form, may be considered as suggestions toward such a theory.
Human progress seems to be in a certain definite direction and to involve the development of certain definite mental powers and of the corresponding higher cerebral centers. The chief of these powers is that of voluntary, sustained attention, which differentiates man sharply from the lower animals and likewise distinguishes civilized man from the savage. Progress has been possible because man has been able to narrow the field of attention, to concentrate or focus his powers, to live under mental stress, strain and effort and to hold his attention on a definite object. The word "tension" may perhaps express both psychologically and physiologically the subjective correlate of progress. It is characteristic of the savage as compared with the lower animals, of civilized man as compared with the savage, of northern races as compared with southern, and of the male as compared with the female. As concentration, sustained attention and abstraction, it issues among civilized man in science and invention. Whether the product be Newton's Principia or Edison's talking machine, or even the long-sustained working-day of the common laborer, it presupposes the above-mentioned powers and involves the constant enlargement of the higher cortical centers of the brain. There is something, whether it be the "will to live," or a "vital impulse," or the cosmic consciousness, or only natural selection, that is eternally driving us on in this direction.
Now the higher and newer the brain centers, the more subject they are to fatigue and the greater is their need of rest. During sleep these centers enjoy almost perfect rest, our dream activity taking the form of passive revery. But eight hours of sleep are not sufficient for this part of the brain. Sixteen hours of sustained attention would probably result in immediate insanity, if such an act were possible. Nature seems to demand some form of activity which shall allow the higher brain centers to rest while providing employment for the lower ones. To such a condition of mind and body we apply the name relaxation and it embraces a considerable portion of our daily activity. It is most perfectly typified in play and sport, but includes many other forms of human interest and activity, such, for instance, as the enjoyment of music, of the drama and of other forms of fine art, the reading of fiction, and countless other kinds of amusement and entertainment not commonly included under the terms play or sport.
But it is in children's play and in adult sport that we find the principles of relaxation best exhibited as they will be found presently to bear upon our problem. The active life of the child is almost wholly a life of play. The brain centers developed late in the history of the race come to maturity late in the life of the child. Hence he rebels instinctively against work, for it involves yet undeveloped centers, those connected with spontaneous and sustained attention. Play is self-developing and supplies its own interest. Furthermore, a study of children's plays shows that they are largely reversionary in form, following the old racial activities of our remote ancestors. The boy, therefore, runs, races, rolls, wrestles, wades, swims, climbs trees, shoots with sling or with bow and arrow, goes hunting, fishing, canoeing, camping, builds tree houses, cave houses, wigwams and pursues a hundred occupations recalling the life of primitive man and far removed from the serious life of modern man, the life of the farm, the shop, the office, the factory, the bank or the schoolroom. The brain paths involved in children's play are the old time-worn easy paths requiring no new associations, no abstractions, no strong and sustained effort of will or attention.
In adult sport we have a still better illustration of the principles of relaxation. If we recall those forms of sport which afford the most perfect rest and relaxation, we shall see how true it is that they are of a character to use the old racial brain paths and rest the higher and newer centers. The tired teacher, lawyer, doctor, preacher or business man, when his vacation comes, reverts to the habits of primitive man. He takes his tent, rod, gun or canoe and goes to forest, lake or mountain, wears more primitive clothes, sleeps on the ground and cooks over a camp fire. Hunting, swimming, yachting, dancing, wrestling, prize-fighting, horse racing—all these are illustrations of the rest afforded by primitive activities. As forms of relaxation they seem so natural to us that often we do not realize how primitive they are and how far removed from the real work-a-day world of modern life, the world of mental concentration, of pen and ink and books, of clerks and stenographers, of office and court room, of flats and congested cities, of business and finance. A football game, which resembles the rough and tumble physical contests of former days, brings together fifty thousand wildly enthusiastic spectators, while an intercollegiate debate commands at most only a handful of hearers with mild enthusiasm, so great is the need of some form of relaxation that shall completely relieve the tension of modern life. The gladiatorial exhibitions of old Rome attracted enormous crowds of eager spectators because of the primitive character of the spectacles. The direct physical contact of man with man or man with beast intoxicated the Romans, whose work-a-day world was not unlike our own and far removed from the life of the arena. Such spectacles awoke the echoes of the past, revived primitive instincts and afforded perfect rest and relaxation. The behavior of the spectators at a football game is an illustration of perfect relaxation. They act for a time like children or savages and return to their work rested and purified. Mankind appears to be under the dominance of two opposing forces. On the one hand we are driven on by the relentless whip of progress, which demands ever greater and greater specialization, application, concentration and powers of conceptual analysis. On the other hand the tired brain rebels against this ceaseless urging and seeks rest and relaxation.
But, now, even in the early history of the race, there was discovered another means of relaxation, artificial to be sure, but quick, easy and convenient. Drugs of various kinds, owing to their peculiar action upon the brain, produce a kind of artificial relaxation. Ethyl alcohol, produced everywhere whenever the ever-present yeast cells come in contact with the sugar of crushed fruit or fermented grain, has the peculiar property of paralyzing to a greater or less extent the higher and later developed brain tracts which are associated with those peculiar forms of mental activity accompanying work and the strenuous life. The later developed and more delicate centers of the nervous system are more susceptible to the attacks of an intruding destructive agency, such as alcohol. Thus it comes about that alcohol answers the demand of the body and mind for relaxation and accomplishes in an artificial way what is effected in a natural way by sport and play and other forms of relaxation. The latter effect this end by turning the energy of the brain into lower and older channels, leaving the higher centers to rest; the former, by directly narcotizing the higher centers and thus liberating the older, freer life of the emotions and the more primitive impulses.
It should not be understood that alcohol has any "selective affinity" for any part of the nervous system. Its action, like that of other toxins, is no doubt diffusive, but affects most seriously those parts of the brain having less power of resistance, particularly the centers late in the order of development. Its depressive effect is felt to some extent, however, upon the lower reflex centers and as such results again in physiological relaxation. This is owing to the fact that its depressive action raises the threshold value of the reflex arc and so diminishes reflex excitability.
From this point of view, therefore, we see that while the action of alcohol is narcotic, nevertheless the narcotic theory, as it has hitherto been presented, is very one-sided, and the truth in the narcotic theory as well as in the stimulation or intoxication theory is now brought into proper relief. One would not say that play and sport are narcotics. They seem to be very refreshing and stimulating. In the same way alcohol is stimulating, not directly, for its physiological action is wholly depressive, but indirectly by inhibiting the higher brain centers and setting free the older and more primitive psychoses. Thus it appears as a depressant of voluntary attention and effort, of logical associations and abstract reasoning, of foresight and prudence, of anxiety and worry, of modesty and reserve and the higher sentiments in general, while, on the other hand, it acts indirectly as an excitant of speech, laughter and song, of emotional feeling and expression, of sentimentality, and in increased doses, of still older and more basic impulses, such as garrulity, quarrelsomeness, recklessness, immodesty and, finally, of coarseness and criminal tendencies. Thus under the progressive influence of alcohol we see the whole life history of the race traversed in reverse direction, for the criminal life of to-day represents the normal life of primitive man.
We thus trace the desire for alcohol to the inherent need of mind and body for relaxation, a need normally supplied by all the varied forms of play and sport. Physiologically it is expressed by the need of rest felt by the higher brain centers upon which conditions of civilization bring so severe a strain. Psychologically it is the expression of the desire for release from the tension of the strenuous life. In a sense, therefore, it is the strenuous life which is responsible for the alcohol impulse, but it should be noted that the word "strenuous" is here used in a broad sense. It does not refer necessarily to an exciting, active, high-pressure life, but refers rather to any condition of unrelieved tension, where sustained effort is demanded with little opportunity for complete rest and relaxation. While these conditions are perhaps best (encouraged by the high-pressure life of our cities, they are also present in the unrelieved toil of the industrial worker.
We are in this way able to understand some of the facts which, as we have shown, must be considered in any theory of the alcohol motive. We may understand not only the increased desire for alcohol in modern life, but also the lesser need for it on the part of woman. Woman is less modified than man and presents less variation. Her life is calmer and more even. She is more conservative, representing the child type, which is the race type. Tier life is less strenuous. She is not keyed up to so high a pitch and hence has less need of relaxation and feels less demand for play and sport. Man, on the other hand, represents variation. The mental powers peculiar to advancing civilization are more developed in him. lie has to be in the vanguard of progress. With him, therefore, the stress of life, the tension, the excitement, are greater and he feels more the need of the harmonizing action of alcohol.
Again, we can understand why even the primitive man finds alcohol a relief, for the tension of his life is great as compared with the lower animals and we can understand why the desire increases with the progress of civilization and the corresponding increase of tension. The stress of life is greatest among the Anglo-Saxon people and greatest of all perhaps in American cities at the present time. In this country especially, the intense life of concentration, of effort, of endeavor, of struggle, of rapid development, has for its correlate an intense longing, not for stimulants,—for our life, our climate, our environment are surely stimulating enough,—but for rest, for relaxation, for harmony, for something to still temporarily the eternal turmoil.
Does the fact that the desire for alcohol is increased by the indulgence in it and the apparent fact that those who fall victims to its excessive use are not always those most in need of its harmonizing action present any difficulty in this theory? Probably not. The desire for relaxation is not necessarily increased by the use of alcohol but only the ever renewed demand for that which produces the longed for effect, and, again, it is not certain that those who fall victims to its excessive use are not those most in need of its harmonizing action. Here the element of prudence and self-control must be taken into account. Excessive users may be those having lesser control or greater opportunity, not those experiencing stronger desire. While the desire for alcohol is increasing with the complexity of society, it is actually true that drunkenness is decreasing and it is possibly true that the number of total abstainers is increasing. These things are determined by custom, by individual environment and education and by the power of self control. But the steady increase in the desire for alcohol is shown not merely in the steady increase in its consumption but still more in the fact that it increases in the face of public and private sentiment, legal statute and social effort.
We see also why the use of alcohol has commonly followed the law of rhythm. Among primitive tribes drinking was periodic, wild orgies of intoxication following considerable periods of the plodding life. This periodicity is seen in convivial drinking of all times and is a familiar fact in every community at the present. The power of self-restraint, strengthened by public sentiment and private prudence, deters from the use of alcohol up to a certain point, when the cumulative force of the desire, which is the cumulative need of release from painful tension, overthrows all barriers and excess and complete relaxation follow for a season.
So it appears that the effect of alcohol is a kind of "catharsis." We recall Aristotle's theory of the drama, which, he says, purifies the mind by giving free expression to certain of the emotions. In a way, therefore, the significance of alcohol is that it is an escape. It is not in itself desired; often enough it is hated. But the user finds himself under the rule of an imperative, an insistent idea, a tormenting presence, and this presence is his whole deep human personality crying out against the eternal urge of the "will to live." The spirit of the age proclaims that we must be efficient. Efficiency, and ever more efficiency, is demanded and the desire for alcohol is the desire for rest, for release from the tension, for freedom and abandonment. Nietzsche, crying out against this spirit of progress, says:
The relation between the effect of alcohol and that of the drama is again clearly expressed by Benjamin Ide Wheeler, when he says:
But now, if this theory is correct, what is the conclusion? Is alcohol a means of purification through relaxation? Just so far as it affords rest to the wearied higher brain centers and relief from the tyanny of the will, it is a means of purification, but unfortunately it is at the same time a poison, bringing in its train a heavy residuum of damage not only to society, but to the individual. The imperative need of relaxation is apparent, but, while play and sport are relaxing and recreative, alcohol is relaxing and destructive. The colossal evil of its excessive use is evident to every one, but there is reason to believe that even its moderate use detracts from the sum-total of well-being of the individual in exact proportion to the amount used. It is possible, however, that the case is still worse. Let us suppose that alcohol were not a poison, that it had no effect beyond a slight paralysis of the higher brain centers. What will be the cumulative effects of such action upon the individual and the race? This question can not at present be answered. It seems probable that this constant doping of the highest and most delicate nervous centers, while it affords the needed relaxation, may work havoc with the delicate organization of the brain. Possibly alcohol represents a factor of maladaptation in the evolution of man and will prevent the realization of his highest destiny. If we consider the degree of civilization attained by the ancient Greeks, several stages above our own in art, and on an equal plane at least in poetry, in eloquence, and in philosophy, we are impressed with the slight progress we have made, when measured by a reasonable expectation based on the time which has elapsed and our rich intellectual inheritance. Gladstone bemoaned the lack of progress in intellectual power made by man in recent centuries. Is any one in position to say that this has not, in part at least, come about from meddling with ethyl alcohol?
- For a fuller account of the anthropological theory of sport and play, see the article by the present writer on "The Psychology of Foot-ball," in the American Journal of Psychology, Vol. XIV., pp. 104-117