In the midst of all the furor about Mel Gibson and his self-admittedly foul behavior while under the influence of alcohol, an important point has been missed: when someone is drunk or brain damaged, is their behavior just disinhibition? Are they behaving this way because they’ve lost the cerebral censor that normally maintains our social demeanor? The Romans certainly thought so: in banqueting halls they would have roses carved into columns and the ceiling. The rose - the symbol of secrets - was a reminder to be discrete when alcohol might begin to lossen the tongue.
When the frontal lobes are on strike, does our “true” personality emerge? Or can alcohol, drugs and brain injury produce brand new behaviors that are not just totally out of character, but predictable by the drug or type of injury?
The answer is a mixture of the two. I know a man who is in the running for the Nobel Prize in medicine. But a couple of years ago it was all over the press when he shattered the arm of an innocent man in the middle of an alcohol-fueled frenzy. Was it the alcohol? Yes, I’m sure that it was. But the scientist has had a very long history of anger problems and of bullying younger colleagues. The alcohol was the catalyst to behavior that he normally keeps in check, but which was just waiting to come out of its cage. I’ve treated hundreds of alcohol abusing people, and the amiable ones far outnumber the violent ones. And the majority of the violent ones had also been violent when not drinking.
Some drugs and chronic alcohol abuse can produce stereotyped hallucinations and behaviors. Some alcoholic people really do see bugs and pink elephants, and there are many other examples of predictable perceptual and behavioral disturbances with drugs and with brain injuries.
Students of the healing arts learn that damage to certain regions of the brain is associated with specific behavioral and emotional consequences. This teaching goes back more than a century, and generations of students have been told that, “Damage here causes depression, and damage here causes mania, and over there a lesions will damage one type of language.” Yet for three decades we have known that much of this teaching is fictitious. I was taught brain localization by some of the finest neurologists in the world, and yet each would admit the inaccuracy of their methods. A new study from Brisbane, Australia supports that nihilism. The investigators examined 61 consecutive people admitted to a stroke unit. “Strokes” are either vascular blockage or bleeds affecting the brain.
They could find no significant relationship between the side or location of a lesion and the development of post-stroke depression. But the kinds of people that they were before the stroke had a big impact: pre-morbid neuroticism and a past history of mental disorder were important predictors of depression following stroke.
So why all the fuss about Mel? Because people are asking if deep down inside he really has been harboring some of the dark, mean spirited thoughts that he expressed to the police, and that the alcohol was the catalyst and not the creator of his diatribe.
“The intoxication of anger, like that of the grape, shows us to others, but hides us from ourselves. We injure our own cause in the opinion of the world when we too passionately defend it.”
-- Charles Caleb Colton (English Clergyman and Author, c.1780-1832)