A forty-year-old memory occurred to me while I was attending a lecture about the effects of alcohol on the brain, presented by a professor of neurology from Johns Hopkins University. As I listened to the lecture and took notes, my mind drifted to my friendship with the legendary Arthur Mallamo.
Mr. Mallamo was my seventh grade gym teacher. He was also a poet, a philosopher and
a comedian. He had an intimidating presence and pushed-in, twisted nose that led to much speculation among us boys about how its unique shape was acquired. Theories ranged from his being a professional wrestler to a Mafia hit man. The truth was even more remarkable: he was a WWII bomber and fighter pilot who’d been shot down not once, but twice, and eluded capture both times. His misshapen nose was a reminder of his ordeals.
If Mr. Mallamo liked you, his way of showing it was to tease you in front of the class.
One cold November day he had us running around the track, our thin gym uniforms
providing almost no protection from the icy winds. As Mr. Mallamo exhorted us onward
he bellowed, “Whoever comes in last has to take Januszewski home for Thanksgiving
dinner!” It was then I knew we were getting along well.
He was also my health class teacher, which was where he expounded on various life
lessons. He’d speak earnestly to us about living generously and about the value of
dedicating your life to service. “Gentlemen,” he’d say softly, “greed is a terrible thing.”
One day a boy smuggled a very dead but otherwise intact frog into the classroom. As soon as Mr. Mallamo’s back was turned, the boy, in a display of boldness I will always admire, launched the frog into the air like a grenade. It landed with an inert thud on the teacher’s desk. All eyes were on Mr. Mallamo as he turned, carefully examined the frog and said, “Gentlemen, this… is a frog. Am I going too fast for you, Januszewski?” We howled with laughter and loved him for that.
Another day in health class Mr. Mallamo explained how alcohol rendered brains cells less
and less functional. To illustrate his point, he took the blackboard eraser in his huge hand and dangled it at arm’s length. “Gentlemen… this is what alcohol does to brain cells…” and he dropped the eraser onto the desk surface, which sent a puff of chalk dust into the air. I got the message: drink too much and your brain cells go poof. This seemed plausible but was it true?
The neurology lecture at Johns Hopkins jogged my memory about Mr. Mallamo’s lessons. It turns out that yes, alcohol, and drunkenness in particular, has a significant negative impact on an aspect of brain development called myelination.
Myelin is the material that forms a protective sheath around nerve cells, or neurons, enabling them to communicate and be social with each other. Proper myelination is vital for the cerebral cortex, the part of your brain that helps you succeed intellectually. Healthy myelination is very good for the gray matter: it enhances crisp thinking and efficient recall in our mental processes. Like people, neurons work well when they are well connected with each other.
One reason drinking is such an effective way to get high is that alcohol easily penetrates
the myelin sheath to mess with cell function. The more intense the drinking, the more
destructive the assault on the myelin sheath. If the myelination process is impaired,
intellectual activity is also impaired; neurons become more rigid, less fluid, more easily
irritated. Poorly myelinated neurons work less efficiently, become poorer communicators
and eventually die of loneliness.
In practical terms, impaired myelination makes it harder to remember things, harder to
concentrate, easier to be frustrated with new information. You could say a well
myelinated brain is better able to enjoy exercising its intellect and a less well myelinated
brain will struggle more.
Healthy myelination is important at all ages, but, according to the Johns Hopkins
neurologist, the cerebral cortex in the human brain desires a myelination “growth spurt”
in the 18-21 age range. The worst way to drink, from a brain growth perspective, is to
binge drink in college. That’s high-impact toxicity.
Once again I tip my hat to my old gym teacher and friend, Arthur Mallamo. He was right to suggest that alcohol can diminish brain power well after we’ve finished drinking. If we value the life of the mind, it makes sense to examine how our drinking pleasures influence our intellectual pleasures. If there was a conflict between the two, which pleasure would take priority?
If you’re mindful of how much you desire your intellectual powers to flourish and would like to limit your drinking, then the next time you’re at a social gathering and someone offers you a drink, feel free to say, “No thanks, I’m myelinating today.”