What causes the Sobering Effect?

I had a truly sobering experience yesterday and would like to understand it physiologically. Yesterday we were having a party at our house-most people were in the back yard, everyone was eating, drinking (heavily) and being merry. Then we heard this horrible blood curdling scream from the neighbor who lives adjacent to us. There is a tall hedge between our properties so we couldn’t see what was going on, but a bunch of us ran around to the front and went back into their yard. The elderly woman who lives there was pulling a limp child out of the pool (I later learned it was her great-nephew). A cardiologist was in the group and he rushed over and took the child and started working on him. As soon as he started CPR, the boy started coughing and choking so I knew he would probably be okay. By the time paramedics arrived, he was crying. Happy ending.

The weird thing was, I went from being extremely buzzed to being COLD SOBER in matter of a few minutes. What causes that and how? I thought my buzz might return after things settled down, but it didn’t. I could have easily driven a car, done a cartwheel on a balance beam or said the alphabet backwards (things I can do IRL, when sober). I don’t get it…what happened to the alcolhol in my system?

WAG: it was neutralized in the curdling process.

Been there, and I’m not sure you could have done those things, no matter how sober you felt. You went from giddy, merry laughing and chitchatting to oh-my-god-he’s-fucking-dying in seconds, which killed the whole pleasant mood you had going, which made you feel sober. Maybe you would have been somewhat better at driving and cartwheeling simply because you were taking them more seriously, but I still think you would have failed pretty badly.

If not, I think we should install a scare-the-shit-out-of-the-driver-device in every new car.

I don’t know at all what I am talking about… but maybe adrenaline is an alcohol effects neutralizer?

I think it might be related to the fact that you “woke up” so to speak, because of the scare. Alcohol tends to make you a bit sluggish, and give you slower reaction time. When that adrenalin was released, you became more “awake”, ie less slow and sluggish, and some of the sensation you normally connect with being drunk was removed.
A very similar effect happens if you drink, and then do some amphetamine (probably true for coke as well). Once you come down from the amphetamine effect you will feel perfectly sober, no matter how much you’ve had to drink earlier. Of course, amphetamine is known to make you feel energetic, and awake.

Being drunk seems to be as much a social phenomena as a physiological one. Everyone’s probably heard of the experiments where people are given placebo booze and, as long as they think they’re drinking alcohol, they loosen up, get chattier, louder, more sociable etc.

I’ve experienced the sobering effect many times, just from finding myself in a serious conversation over something profound or personal. And on the opposite side, I’ve found my drunkenness seriously boosted by an especially good mood and great expectations for the night. As in: “Gee, those two beers really got a buzz on! Paartyyy!” Other times, a half-bottle of whiskey within an hour and sober friends say they can’t tell that I’ve had anything.

Adrenaline made you more alert and attentive. That’s what it’s for.

Don’t think that this represented ‘sobering up’, however. Your blood alcohol content was unchanged, and your reaction times, reasoning, etc would still not be the same as if you were alcohol-free.

On MythBusters last night (recorded some time during the last week; I’m not sure when it’s actually on), they did a sobering study. One thing that bugged me was the casual mention that two of the confirmed methods were verified by the alcohol meter! The other major measurement was a motor skills test, and we all know there’s some degree of performance differences at different BAC’s between individuals. I’d have thought that confirmation with the breath tester would have merited much, much more attention than the motor skills test.

With that… what’s the biological mechanism for having actually reduced the BAC in the tests?

Lab error.

The only thing that will reduce BAC is time.

If a person chronically drinks or takes drugs, the liver gears up to burn alcohol off a little faster, but that’s a chronic situation, not something that can be used acutely.

Dialysis could reduce BAC acutely, but that’s a little extreme…

That’s not strictly true - the French drug regulatory agency approved a pill (which I can’t find, inconveniently) about 10 years ago which accelerated the breakdown of alcohol.

I’d like to see a cite on that; many drugs have been put forth as being able to accelerate alcohol breakdown, but when not outright quackery, the problems with toxicity or general ineffectiveness in vivo have rendered them irrelevant.

Many drugs do rev up the liver and enable one to metabolize alcohol faster, but that is a chronic effect; not a situation where one can pop a pill to quickly sober up/beat the DUI.

I don’t quite understand this - they were testing sobering effects of stuff on blood alcohol content without actually measuring blood alcohol content? As a former medical lab tech, I can assure you that any testing they did without actually drawing blood (properly - drawing blood for BACs is different than usual draws) was useless. Motor skills tests would mean nothing in this test. That’s why police bring people in for a proper, stand-up-in-court blood draw (and yes, lab techs can be called as expert witnesses).

Yeah, I agree (thought I did, trying to get re-edumacated here) with all the points about BAC. Time, and that’s it. The fact that the Mythbusters mentioned – casually – that their results were backed up with a BAC measurement but only mentioned it casually, is what has provoked my question.

What was tested were several means that people often think of to get less drunk. Specifically (if I recall correctly), hot coffee, a cold dunk in ice-cold water, a hard slap to the face, and exercise. In all cases, they used each other as a control, and performed a motor skills test and breathalyzer. We got to see excerpts of the motor skills test, but only the voiceover only indicated the results of the breathalyzer, and not for every test. In the testing, then, exercise and a slap to the face resulted in better performance in the motor skills test, and according to the voiceover, it was corraborated by a decrease in BAC per the breath analyzer. Note they never indicated that it was enough to return to a legal BAC level, only that these two methods had a measurable increase in performance and decrease in measured BAC.

I agree that an actual blood sample would have been more accurate.

Perhaps exercise would metabolate the alcohol a little bit, but would it be enough to be measurable? And what about a hard slap in the face? Adrenelin?

Again, nothing was indicated about bringing anyone back into a legal driving limit, but the possibility that their results would be replicable seems kind of fascinating, as (to me) time should be the only factor.

They were testing motor-skill proficiency/coordination using a test, and also measuring BAC with a handheld breathalyzer.

I too was surprised that they said the BAC went down for any of the methods.

A blood curdling scream, followed the appearance of a dying child will induce a strong fight or flight response. In addition to the adrenaline itself, additional sugar and oxygen should be available. I’m guessing here but that might contribute to a perception of sobriety. Since the physiological purpose of these changes is to help you run or fight for your life, if you don’t have to do anything the results can be quite noticable/unpleasant.

I would postulate that your BAC did not change at all, that your motor skills improved some, but did not return to your pre-intoxicated baseline (nor would you be legal to try).

Just ask anybody who’s done a line of crank after some heavy drinking.

I’ve noticed a similar effect among young people (teenagers and 21-year-olds) drinking alcohol. They take a few slugs and within seconds they’re grinning, laughing and talking very loudly, and slurring their words, despite the fact that the alcohol could not possibly have taken effect yet. I’ve always assumed that there is a subconscious mental process that takes place that says, “Drunk people act like X, I’m drinking alcohol, I will now act like X”. This effect usually goes away as the person gains more experience with alcohol and the subconscious learns that alcohol doesn’t work that quickly.

No. IIRC, they blew the breathalyzer to test their alcohol content, but the “sobering up” test was simply how well they could trace a complicated pattern on a whiteboard. The face-slap and other tests did show an apparent improvement in how well they did with the tracing, but I don’t recall them showing any blood alcohol improvements.

They also did not investigate how well one performed 10 or so minutes after the sobering-up event. I’m assuming the effect would have worn off, and they’d perform just as badly as if they hadn’t been slapped.

[hijack]the slo-mo film of Jamie slapping Adam was way cool. Looked like Adam’s entire face was rotated a quarter of the way around his skull![/hijack]

I appreciate all the replies everyone. I just read a bunch of info on adrenaline and what you all said makes perfect sense. But a few follow-up questions that I couldn’t find the answers to: How long does the adrenaline take to “wear off”? I noticed after the incident that even after my heart stopped racing and I was back at my own party, I still** felt **sober…my buzz never returned (or never seemed to). Does adrenaline simply make you more alert or might it make you metabolize the alcohol more quickly?

Since I’m always trying to find the next get-rich-quick invention, I got a kick out of this…

In a really good car, that device is known as the accelerator. In a really bad car, it’s known as the brakes.

The voice-over guy mentioned it casually, that the breathalyzer corroborated the improved testing response.