Beer googles refers to the effect of alcohol on a person’s brain, usually causing someone they would not normally consider physically attractive to seem so. The more alcohol consumed, the more attractive that person appears to the drinking individual. While the term generally refers to getting intimate with someone unsuitable while drinking, it applies to other less-than-great choices made while under the influence as well. No matter the behavior or activity, the “I just had too much to drink” excuse wears thin quickly.
While there is no shortage of anecdotal tales about beer googles, is there good science behind it? The answer to be a tentative, “Yes.”
What Are Some Effects of Alcohol?
People drink for various reasons, but most do so to relax and feel more sociable. Certain chemicals released by the brain after drinking make people feel happier, at least for a short while. That alone probably influences the beer googles phenomenon. Beer googles would not exist without the lowered inhibitions caused by alcohol.
Alcohol is considered a depressant, and greater consumption leads to feelings of anxiety. Some people get into a vicious cycle in which they drink, feeling upbeat for a while and then becoming anxious, which may last after they sober up the following day. If they feel anxious and depressed, they might decide to have another drink, which can cause alcohol use to spiral out of control.
So, What’s the Science?
People expect alcohol to make them feel a certain way. Studies have shown that just telling someone they are drinking an alcoholic beverage, even if there is no alcohol in it, can affect their behavior. This is called alcohol expectancy, and however the individual expects alcohol to make them feel, that’s just how they will behave.
In one study, those who were told they had consumed an alcoholic beverage thought they were more attractive, smarter, amusing, and creative than people were not told their drink contained alcohol. Researchers also found that people who drank a fruity concoction that did contain vodka were more likely to rate photos of average-looking people as attractive or beautiful than those who had the same drink with no alcohol.
Beer, or any other type of alcohol, lowers inhibitions and changes mood. That is a primary reason why many people drink. Alcohol consumption can help shy people feel confident and outgoing. However, if you end up hooking up with a person you wouldn’t be caught dead with while sober, that lack of inhibition is the most likely culprit. Those lowered inhibitions can get you into all sorts of trouble, including getting together with someone you know is no good, or who your friends cannot stand. That’s at least part of the reason people do things while drunk that would never happen when they were sober.
Messing with Your Head
Alcohol changes the way the brain communicates with its neurotransmitters. The three critical neurotransmitters most affected by drinking are the:
- Nucleus Accumbens – this crucial structure in the brain’s mid-section plays a huge role in rewards, focusing on pleasure, incentives, and satisfaction. It also helps maintain memories. Alcohol consumption may not only change the way the brain processes another person’s physical attractiveness, but how you handle desire. When alcohol is consumed, it boosts the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes a person feel more upbeat - at least temporarily. The release of these pleasurable chemicals is a reason so many people become addicted to alcohol. Alcohol’s effect on memory may also keep you from remembering just how awful your ex really is when you decide to spend time with them while drinking. The next day, when sober, you are likely to recall just why you are no longer with this person.
- Glutamate receptors: This chemical excites neurons. Alcohol blocks these glutamate receptors, so the brain cannot activate them.
- GABA receptors: Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), slows brain activity. Unlike its actions on glutamate receptors, when alcohol binds to GABA receptors, it stimulates them. Overall, the interaction with alcohol between GABA and glutamate receptors results in lowering of brain and central nervous system activity. While that is a big reason that alcohol can make imbibers sleepy, it also affects thinking and respiration.
Overall, alcohol’s affect on these three neurotransmitters alone can affect the workings of the entire central nervous system, with dopamine making the drinker think this is a positive effect. However, that is just part of how alcohol affects your brain and messes with your head. Other areas of the brain on which alcohol has a deleterious effect include the:
- Frontal lobes – These are responsible for language, expressing emotions, judgement, communication, and sexual behaviors. They are referred to the brain’s “control panel”. Yes, when you drink, all of these skills are negatively affected to some degree. We all know the classic slurred drunk voice, that is your language skills being affected by alcohol.
- Hippocampus – This is the memory storage area of the brain. Drinking excessively sometimes results in memory loss, the “blackout” stage of a wild night.
- Cerebellum – The cerebellum controls balance and coordination. Consuming too much alcohol causes issues with movement.
- Hypothalamus and pituitary glands: The hypothalamus and pituitary glands concentrate on releasing hormones. When alcohol interferes, sexual desire may rise, but actual performance is another story.
- Medulla Oblongata: Although the medulla oblongata makes up just a small part of the brain stem, it controls necessary life functions. That includes your temperature, heart rate, breathing, and your consciousness. While most people must consume a lot of alcohol to severely depress the medulla oblongata, drinking can cause death in vulnerable individuals if their heart or respiratory rates slow significantly.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether beer googles are myth or scientific reality. There are people who can drink a fair amount but will not pick up some unsuitable person as a result. You may know people who experience the beer goggles phenomenon frequently, and always regret it. Having sex with someone you normally would have no interest in tends to end badly, and that goes beyond waking up in the morning and wondering how you got into this situation. It might mean an STD or pregnancy, or ruining a friendship. If you are married or in a serious relationship and your partner finds out about it, the results can be lifechanging in the worst way.
Whether or not beer googles is all in the mind, the best way to avoid this situation is either by not drinking or just having one or two beers over the course of an evening. You can ask your friends to watch out for you or swear you won’t get into the same situation again, but if you aren’t drunk, the odds of ending up with Ms. or Mr. Totally Unsuitable at the end of the night diminishes considerably.