A recent study has shown that the reaction to ironic humor is impaired and misconstrued in the mind of the alcoholic male. Understanding why that is, could potentially lead to communicative and therapeutic breakthroughs in empathy-based treatment of alcoholism.

Author:  Neal Catalano, North Bay Recovery Center Blogger

In the battle against alcohol abuse and alcoholism, men are often faced with a number of trying emotional situations involving themselves and those they care about. However, research has shown the actual ability of men who abuse alcohol to experience empathy, or to react to nuanced emotive facial expressions, is severely hindered. Furthermore, a recent study has shown that the reaction to ironic humor is impaired and misconstrued in the mind of the alcoholic male. Understanding why that is, could potentially lead to communicative and therapeutic breakthroughs in empathy-based treatment of alcoholism.

According to Simona Amenta, a researcher at the University of Milano-Bicocca, who authored a study on which these findings were based, chronic alcohol abuse can severely affect how one perceives emotional expression. This ties into damage that alcohol causes to the human brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that is key to feeling empathy. It is also imperative in dealing with understanding humor, both in terms of the pure, rational comprehension of a joke, and any emotion that is underlying in the joke or is being expressed in the telling of it.

This ties into the previously mentioned fact that alcoholic men, in particular, have an especially difficult time understanding irony. Irony itself is very complex, because it requires a basic, intrinsic understanding of human emotion and reaction to a situation, and the cognitive know-how to grasp that what is expected is being turned on its ear, or otherwise is being stated to humorously, perhaps self-awarely subvert a preconceived notion or statement.

In her study, Amenta gathered 44 men to participate, 22 of which were alcoholics, and 22 who were acquainted not alcoholics themselves. All subjects were told to read stories with either ironic or non-ironic endings, and to fill out a questionnaire pertaining to their comprehension of the intention of the characters in the stories.

What Amenta found was that, upon completion of these questionnaires, the alcoholic men found that irony was being used to convey, generally speaking, positive thoughts and feelings. The control group, however, was just the opposite, finding that the stories were focusing on transmitting negativity through irony.

This ties into the aforementioned issues that alcoholic men often have with empathy. Alcoholic men often have issues picking up on subtle emotional cues in the face of another party. This also relates to the fact that, on the whole, they tend to undersell the intensity of negative emotions, if they even register them at all. Conversely, alcoholic men typically understand when another is conveying a positive emotion just as well as the rest of the aggregate population that is not alcohol-dependent.

Amenta’s test on irony processing is important then, because it shows that along with not being able to accurately process negative feelings that are being conveyed, alcoholic men have trouble with complex linguistic scenarios such as ironic communication. This can in part be traced back to the damage excess alcohol is known to cause to the prefrontal cortex. But what it also shows is that the less blatant one is in verbally conveying negative feelings towards an alcoholic man, the less likelihood there is of getting through to him.

Knowing the neurological damage prolonged alcohol abuse can cause to the brain of the alcoholic male is key to understanding the seeming disconnect in certain emotional scenarios. Studies such as Amenta’s help those in the lives of men who battle with alcohol abuse to fully comprehend just how far the damage can run both physiologically and socially. And with such knowledge comes the means to grow treatment and to train in empathetic awareness. Thus, those who are seeking treatment for alcohol abuse may have the hope to learn to build full connections emotionally with other people. And those doing the treating will learn to proceed with empathic hearts and minds themselves.

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