Abstaining from alcohol as bad as imbibing too much

It seems that alcohol is dearly needed. As much as over-indulging in booze, abstaining leads to uncomfortable situations, too. That is according to commentaries presented at a conference at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

This is because during hundreds, if not thousands, of years alcohol has pervaded the patterns of our social interactions, all kinds of rituals and everyday activities to such an extent that on many occasions it would be hard to imagine communication between humans without it.

This was shown by two presentations at the conference about giving up alcohol by Tatyana Argounova Low and Yuri Zegutin. Both are Yakuts but they work at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and at the Institute of Humanitarian Studies in Yakutsk, respectively.

In a joint presentation about ‘coding’, Low and Zegutin said coding is a Soviet practice that started in the 1970s. It involves making people believe (in most cases through hypnosis) they had been ‘coded’ against consuming alcohol and that from that moment on, any kind of boozing would end up badly.

Mostly, that is how it ends: when the ‘coded’ person touches alcohol it leads to sleep disorders, vomiting and even suicidal thoughts. Usually the coded person starts to avoid alcohol, as well as people who use it and places where it is available.

As a result, the coded former boozer often loses contact with almost all the people in his or her life. After all, who would want a suffering sober person at their party? In Russia (and especially in Siberia), where most business is done in the sauna with vodka shots, this can lead to catastrophic economic consequences.

Another presentation about abstaining was by Laur Vallikivi of the University of Tartu about the traditional Nenets people who converted to the Baptist faith, and their complicated relationship with the traditional culture and their relatives.

Born-again Christians don’t drink but to Nenets it is inseparable from birthday parties as well as many other rituals. So this, too, leads to alienation from the imbibers’ culture and their people in general.

As in most traditional cultures, the tribal bonds are made and strengthened through rituals. Thus it seems as though there is no apparent escape from drinking!

In his presentation Art Leete, a professor of ethnology at the University of Tartu, compared pictures painted of Northern peoples, works by many philosophers and historians from the antique period to the Enlightenment.

It seems that all of them over the centuries have been certain that in the Far North, people not only drink too much but that everyone must drink too much as well.

The explanations for this view vary. It was thought alcohol was needed because it was so cold in the north that otherwise the blood would freeze.

Long periods of darkness and the desperation caused by it were also mentioned, as well as suggestions that it was needed for energy, or the extraordinary wildness and barbarity of the ‘Northern race’ that would not allow them take alcohol in a sophisticated, aesthetic way, like civilised people.

At the end of the presentation, Leete showed a global map of alcohol consumption that proved these previous authors were right: the further towards the north we look, the more per capita alcohol consumption can be seen.

World map showing countries by annual alcohol consumption per capita. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons – Sbw01f.

University of Tartu professor of psychophysiology Jaanus Harro explained another interesting fact about the physiological side of alcohol consumption. Neuro-physiological surveys have shown that humans gain the biggest pleasure before drinking alcohol, not from imbibing it – that is, it is the anticipation of pleasure that gives drinking its most enjoyable effect.

* Aimar Ventsel is a senior researcher in the University of Tartu’s department of ethnology. His research interests include economic and legal anthropology, music cultures and identity politics. This is an edited version of a blog Ventsel wrote last month.