Last Saturday night I invited a couple friends over to pre-game. I had found an intensive Jurassic Park movie drinking game online and was prepared to become intoxicatingly mesmerized by the 993 dino-CGI.
I prepared two large servings of jungle juice. “Jug A” contained two 295 millilitre berry concentrate packs, 885 millilitres of water and 600 millilitres of Bacardi rum. “Jug B” had two 295 millilitre berry concentrate packs and 950 millilitres of water, with no booze. These ingredients were undisclosed.
After my two friends got comfy on my couch, I read them the rules to the movie’s drinking game. As Muldoon insisted, “SHOOT HER! SHOOT HER,” when the velociraptor broke free from her cage at the start of the film and viciously dragged a worker to his helpless doom, we began our jungle juice decent. Bombs away.
One of the rules dictated that we drink whenever someone is killed, or in any instance when the Jurassic Park Logo is casually revealed. For those of you who’ve seen this movie, you know we were drinking rapidly after the first twenty minutes.
I observed the situation beyond what was flashing on the screen. One of my friends was only drinking the cups from “jug B,” unaware that there was no alcohol mixed in the pool of liquefied sugar.
This situation had unintentionally turned into a scientific observation regarding the placebo effects of non-alcoholic consumption.
As the movie went on and more cups were guzzled, “jug B” friend appeared more talkative than he did upon entering. He also seemed more hyper, but that was likely a direct correlation to the excessive sugar the three of us were consuming at a dangerous pace.
“I feel the booze for sure, but the sugar is what’s killing me,” “jug B” friend said, as water rippled ominously before a t-rex appeared through the bushes, ready for the kill.
After an hour of watching, before deciding to surrender our sugar rush to a rampant game of beer pong, “jug B” friend knocked over a couple cups while standing up. The sugar strikes again.
As we played pong and blasted music, I noticed an enhancement of social interaction amongst “jug B” friend. He seemed more comfortable at my house, more relaxed than he’s been on most sober occasions. He danced and sang as anyone would after a couple beers.
There are some separate factors worth mentioning: the other friend and myself were considerably buzzed. We had the sugar in our system, too, but the rum was undoubtedly present. This may have suggested a further conformation from the third drinker as he witnessed our own behavioural changes. Also, the three of us only met each other about a month ago. We were not a group of childhood friends that had known each other for years prior to this occasion. This can suggest a difference in our initial comfortability.
At the end of the night, after I told “jug B” friend there was no booze in any of his drinks, he seemed genuinely surprised.
“I really felt like I was drinking alcohol,” he said. “I felt it more and more throughout the night, probably from the sugar. But I felt something.”
After that night, I wondered how far a placebo effect could really go.
“The effect is real,” said professor of psychology and neuroscientist, Bruce McKay.
“Part of it is that many people are so experienced with drinking alcohol they kind of learn how a couple drinks changes their behaviour and they start to change their behavior in anticipation of what the alcohol is going to do for them.”
In other words, a behavioural change is the only notable symptom to a placebo effect.
“For the studies that I’ve read, that only works to about one to two beers equivalent, or one or two shots, but it all depends on different bodies,” he said.
“There’s individual differences, but people don’t typically get hammered on placebo effects. They do get more fun on placebo effects, for sure. They get more talkative and all the other things that people start to do after a couple drinks. But people don’t tend to get drunken or reckless—they often figure out pretty quickly that they aren’t actually getting drunk. You don’t get any of the visual changes, you mostly get more of the social effects.”
This makes what happened to “jug B” friend more logical. He was never incoherent or explicitly intoxicated. But he was apparently looser in the social environment.
Alcohol is infamous for turning introverts into extraverts amongst social situations. But is the liquor solely responsible for allowing people to come out of their shells?
“If they’re able to do that under the influence of alcohol, they were able to do that when they were sober, too. And the reason for that is, all that these chemicals and drugs do is just work on brain circuits that are already in your brain. They don’t do anything new, they just allow you to do things that you wouldn’t have done in particular contexts,” explained McKay.
“Lots of people that are highly introverted in public are actually not introverted with their close friends and family members. They already have the brain circuitry to be more engaging, they just in this particular social context, did not. But with a little alcohol on board, they can be. But they can be because they already could be in different contexts.
So it’s not that alcohol did something new, it just allowed them to do something they always could do, just in a different situation, now.”
Without the alcohol, without the manipulation of neurotransmitters, what causes people to become more socially engaging? The placebo effect could push those boundaries very similarly.
“You were always that person, just not in that environment,” McKay said.
The placebo can permit access to your natural personality, without the restrictions of a typical sober mindset—one where fear of judgement and embarrassment cause every action to be meticulously monitored.
McKay explained how this could also be applied to drugs. If someone who has never smoked marijuana, but has been around high people frequently enough, unknowingly smokes oregano instead of weed, they could actually believe they are getting some level of high.
“You don’t get any of the true peripheral nervous system effects. It goes for other drugs, too,” McKay said.
“Again, there’s individual differences. There’s certain people that could feel incredible things completely sober with an altered mindset. People can sit down and meditate and feel full blown hallucinations with no drugs in their system.
Most people can’t do that, but some people can. Some people’s brains just allow them to go places that most people can’t. With that being said, because most people can’t do it, most people need alcohol or drugs to get to that point.”
So what does all this mean? This isn’t saying we should stop blowing money on liquor and revert to tricking our friends with overloads of sugar. Rather, it’s saying that the benefits of drinking in a social context are not exclusively from alcohol.
In a university culture where the dependency for booze in every social situation is undeniably prominent, it’s important to realize that social engagement does not exclusively derive from manipulating your neuro-transmitters.
Sometimes it could come with some berry-concentrate and the destructive rampage of a t-rex.