Buzz: the Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine by Stephen Braun, Oxford University Press US$25
Heedless of the precise placement of alcohol and caffeine in the four fannish food groups, the Plokta cabal are very fond of their cuppa and their tipple. When I saw Buzz on the shelves of my local bookshop, I immediately tagged it as a must buy, but was discouraged that it was only available in dollar priced US hardback. I browsed it quite thoroughly before plucking up courage to buy it. I think it was worth it.
Poisons. Alcohol and caffeine are poisons. Mind altering drugs even. So what is it about them that makes us like them so much? Buzz relates in grimy detail the processes whereby alcohol and caffeine produce complex effects on human beings. Peppered with amusing anecdotes, quirky quotes, and historical and mythological details concerning tea, coffee and demon drink, the core of the book concerns what is happening in the human body and brain. Former neuroscience researcher Stephen Braun takes the reader on a Fantastic Voyage with eighteen year old Macallan molecules from mouth to stomach to gut. Arriving at the brain, simple ethanol reacts very differently in different contexts, producing a cocktail of effects mimicking cocaine, opium, Valium and ether. Buzz! Against this neurochemical backdrop, we follow the effect of alcohol on sexual response, the physiology of hangovers, and positive and negative effects on health generally.
The world's most popular mind-altering substance is not alcohol but caffeine. While caffeine occurs widely in aboriginal drinks across the tropics, coffee met with considerable resistance when first introduced to Europe-its pitch like appearance conjured up images of medieval torture. Soon however it became popular for its well known effects on the drinker, reducing sleepiness and seeming to stimulate thought. Buzz!
Rather than acting as a direct stimulant, caffeine blocks receptors for a substance whose function in the brain is to tell us to slow down. In consequence, we speed up because the brakes are off and we can't slow down. And despite the personal testimony of many eminent thinkers, caffeine's reputation as the 'think drink' may be overrated. Studies suggest that while the capacity for mundane thought is increased, higher functions may actually be depressed. The situation is further complicated by the extent to which drinkers quickly become habituated. The regular user suffers withdrawal which is only relieved after an early morning fix. Thereafter further coffee provides relatively little stimulation unless copious amounts are consumed. Buzz completes the jigsaw by considering how alcohol and coffee work in combination. The scatter gun effect of alcohol, working on almost every neurotransmitter in the brain, can only be partly counteracted by the highly specific effects of caffeine. Thus using coffee to sober up only gets youà a wide awake drunk.
On a more personal note, Stephen Braun ruminates upon his consumption of coffee and booze while writing Buzz, and how his researches may have led him to reconsider his attitude as a consumer/addict/user.
I found Buzz to be a compelling read. The science is explained with great clarity, and is entertainingly linked to quotes and anecdotes that are well chosen and sympathetically drawn. But perhaps most appealing are the numerous snippets and neat facts-the function of pain receptors in the 'mouth feel' of alcohol, the simple change to bodily processes which would cause heavy exercise to make us roaring drunk, and the real reason why young men take their booze better than young women (and more than lose this advantage as the years progress).
Buzz is, appropriately, a coffee table book full of excellent preparation for pub chat. What's your poison?
-- Steven Cain, under the influence
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