How does adrenaline work?
August 13, 2012 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Adrenaline and sobriety, how does it work?

I had an interesting experience this weekend where I was very pleasantly buzzed off a few drinks, and an emergency came up that required me and a couple other people to jump into fast and complex action for a fairly prolonged period. I felt completely sober and could focus and act "together" in a way that I know I normally cannot when I've had more than two drinks. I could remember first responder training stuff that I normally have trouble with in sober non-emergencies. Based on the reports of people around us and the (good) outcome, I do not think I was just feeling sober but actually acting drunk.

The friends I was with report the same experience. We know we weren't actually sober, but we definitely felt like it and could act as if we were. It's gotten me very interested in how adrenaline works, exactly, and how it behaves when your system is already altered - what makes me feel like I'm sober when a sudden shock pops up, and how valid is that perceived sobriety? I know my BAC was the same, of course, but I was more coordinated and quicker with reactions than I am when I haven't had a drink at all.
posted by peachfuzz to Health & Fitness (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There's a discussion in the straight dope archive on 'the sobering effect' here. Interesting stuff - the consensus seems to be that only time can really lower your BAC, and that adrenaline (serving to heighten your alertness) effective counteracts the effect of one chemical with another.
posted by jquinby at 11:58 AM on August 13, 2012

Alcohol knocks out your higher brain functions first, prefrontal activity like planning and judgement.

Adrenaline activates some of the oldest, "lowest" systems in our body to keep us alive when everything else has gone wrong - "fight or flight".

Most likely, you still didn't have the best judgement, and probably got lucky with a good outcome (because some lawyer would have used your intoxication to get around "good samaritan" laws and crucify you). But your actions reverted to what you had trained to do, with little strategizing or consideration of the consequences of your actions involved.
posted by pla at 12:10 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

There was a mythbusters that looked into whether adrenaline improved performance. They got various team members super tired, super cold, and maybe drunk. Then they did various tests like math and target practice both before and after getting slapped hard. The adrenaline from the slap pretty universally improved performance.

But even the experts they talked to didn't fully understand the whole hormone sequence of the Mechanism of the improved performance.
posted by ldthomps at 12:53 PM on August 13, 2012

Best answer: So, you were fast, accurate, and calm under the influence of alcohol + emergency-generated adrenaline. But have you considered the possibility that you might have been a total NINJA under the influence of emergency-generated adrenaline without the alcohol?
posted by Ausamor at 12:57 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Remember that study they did where they gave a bunch of people drinks that were not alcoholic and told them they were very alcoholic? Those people acted drunk and reported that they felt drunk. You may experience yourself as more drunk than you physiologically are because you expect alcohol to affect you in a specific, culturally programmed way. The adrenalin may have caused you to pay attention to the emergency and stop playing out the script, making you feel more sober (but actually only restoring you to the actual level of relative sobriety you were always physiologically at). One theory.
posted by prefpara at 6:26 PM on August 13, 2012

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