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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My sweetheart the drunk

"It's like hanging out with a drunk person" I said to Captain Boringvoice.  We had just witnessed Milkbaby (now four) push over a large smoothie whilst trying to slide it back across the table to me.  Looking back on it now, even a drunk person knows you don't move a full glass of beer by applying force to the top of the glass.  "Think about it" I went on "- no voice volume control, repeating self, interrupting other people, emotionally volatile, lack of inhibition, argumentative..."

"Hmm" said Captain Boringvoice in agreement, looking at Milkbaby.  "Actually, it's probably more like hanging out with a drunk person who's also on acid", nodding my gaze towards Milkbaby.  At that moment, Milkbaby was using his fingers to create patterns in the maple syrup on his plate, then staring fixedly at each finger before licking it clean and repeating.

A quick google revealed that there's actually more to this comparison than I thought.  In short, the functions that alcohol impairs in the adult brain are quite similar to the functions that are still developing in a preschooler's brain.

It's all about the prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex (the PFC to some, otherwise known as the bulbous bit of your brain immediately behind your forehead) is the smartest part of your brain.  It's the brain's brain.  Its job is to interpret messages from other parts of your brain, and turn that information into a response that reflects both present and future circumstances.  Take crossing the road.  It's your PFC that's saying, "hold it, I hear a car coming, it's not safe to cross now, okay, look the other way, yes, coast is clear, right you can cross now."  See what I mean about present and future circumstances?
The PFC: ensures you don't cry over toast triangles.

It's also the job of the PFC to exert control over the rest of your brain in social situations to avoid socially unacceptable outcomes.  So the next time you order toast in a cafe, and it's cut in triangles rather than squares, and for some strange reason it really really matters to you and you feel like you're going to cry about it or shout at someone but you manage to hold it together?  That's your PFC going "just hold it together buddy, crying about toast that's cut wrong will create a scene, and we don't want to do that now, do we?"

So let's just do a little tally up.  The main effects of alcohol on your PFC will mean you have:

  • poorer spatial recognition and planning (if we take the crossing the road example again, your drunken PFC is going "how far away is that car?  is it a car?  whatever, just cross the road, I'm pretty sure that moving object isn't going to hit you")
  • poorer recall and decision-making (need I explain?)
  • lowered inhibition (possibly not lowered so much so that you are apt to shout "my wees are coming out!" across a crowded bar, but let's just say your tongue and voicebox volume control will be loosened up somewhat).

And what about preschoolers?

Well...  In humans, the PFC is still developing well into your twenties, and structural changes actually occur during the preschool years.  In short, your threenager is yelling at you for cutting their toast wrong because their PFC hasn't yet grown enough to tell them it's inappropriate to make a scene over such a minor matter.  

The PFC of a preschooler is also still developing its other areas of executive function.  Like decision-making and planning.  This is a pretty common conversation in our house most days right now.

"Honey, do you need to pee?  Because we're going out so it would be a good idea to pee before we leave"
"No."
"Can you just try?"
"NO."
"Please?  It's quite a long car ride and I don't want you to have an accident" [read: the back seat of the car is dubious-smelling enough already without adding another bladder-full of wee to it]
"NO NO NO NO NO!  I DON'T NEED TO GO!"
"Ok, fine, let's not argue about it."

[10 minutes later, on the motorway or some other place quite far from any weeing facilities]

"Mamma?  I need to wee."
"Okay, can you hold on until we find somewhere?"
"No, my wees are coming!!!"
"Okay, just hold on, I'm pulling over."

[As you can see here I'm quite calm and polite about a late wee disclosure, but Jebus it DRIVES. ME. INSANE. and it's usually all I can do not to shout "You've got to be f#@*ing kidding me!!  We JUST talked about this!!"]

Check out the concentration on his
face with all that PFC activity.
Finally, there's recall and decision-making.  Take a skill like covering your mouth when you sneeze.  That involves anticipation, recall, decision-making and a bit of social control for good measure.  It's quite complex when you think about it.  Such a function requires consistent performance from your PFC.  Some adults haven't even mastered this skill, so why is it that beat ourselves up over our child's inability to prevent the spread of his latest lurgy?  Milkbaby's been berated so many times we had this conversation last week:

Milkbaby: "Achoo"
Me: "Cover your mouth"
Milkbaby: "How many times do I have to tell you?!"
Me: "Exactly what I was thinking." 

So, next time you're hanging out with your preschooler, and you're wondering why on earth they're shouting at you when you're right next to them, picking a fight over the colour of their pants, or refusing to use the toilet even though you know you won't be near facilities for the next little while, blame it on an under-developed prefrontal cortex and pretend you're hanging out with a drunk person.

Or even better, a drunk person on acid.  Pretty sure that entitles you to lick maple syrup from your fingers in a crowded cafe.

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