The Power of Dionysus: Effects of Red Wine on Consciousness
Altered states of consciousness after red wine consumption.
Posted September 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- Red wine diminished the awareness of time, and increased reports of time passing slower.
- Red wine caused significant changes in six dimensions of consciousness.
We all know the short-term effects of too much alcohol: nausea, a headache the next morning, and a lost “day after” when we cope with the mental and physical effects of having been drunk the previous night. Alcohol constitutes a substantial burden for individuals and societies worldwide. It is linked to adverse outcomes, such as violence and drunk driving in the short-term, and alcohol addiction, cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver in the long-term. Why is alcohol so much part of our daily lives? Because aside from the strong negative side effects, there must also be significant benefits.
Edward Slingerland has just written a book on this topic: Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization. Slingerland argues that alcohol, consumed in moderate doses, enhances creativity and alleviates social stress. The time spent at boring parties, when we feel alone, can be ameliorated by alcohol. We get into a flow of effortless activity and start bonding with others. It is not merely by chance that alcohol is the friend of the lonely and brings people together. What is more, alcohol can build trust and, important for the development of societies, can get people in a tribe to cooperate with strangers. The wish to get drunk and the effects of being drunk played an essential role in forming the first larger societies. According to Slingerland, civilization was built on intoxication.
My respected colleague Rui Costa and I were sitting in the CorkScrew wine bar in Lisbon and discussing our research on altered states of consciousness. See my earlier Psychology Today blogs on altered states during sexual absorption, meditation, and psychedelics. Rui, who is a researcher at the William James Center for Research in ISPA - Instituto Universitário in Lisbon, suggested conducting a study on effects of red wine in the CorkScrew.
The owner is Arlindo Madeira, Professor at the Tourism and Hospitality Management School in Lisbon, with whom we later developed the idea. Why would we do this outside of the usual laboratory environment? We wanted to study the recreational use of alcohol in a natural environment. Imagine drinking a glass of wine alone in a research laboratory with nerdy scientists watching you. This confirms Slingerland’s thesis of creativity; the idea was born while drinking a bottle of red wine together in a wine bar.
A jump in time to the results of our study, which have just been published in the journal PLOS ONE, with Matilde Barata as co-investigator. We investigated acute altered states of consciousness after drinking two glasses of red wine from the Lisbon region, the Quinta da Lapa Reserva Syrah 2018. Over several months we had 102 adult guests in the wine bar drinking alone, in couples, or in groups of up to six people fill out questionnaires before and after drinking two glasses of the wine.
Red wine consumed in this atmosphere first improved people’s moods, as they responded more strongly to the questions of experiencing peace, love, and pleasure. Red wine had substantial effects on subjective time, an indicator of altered states of consciousness. Although the awareness of time diminished, in retrospect time was felt as passing more slowly. This probably is due to the retrospective judgment of the previous time interval as having been a pleasant time with many distinct experiences remembered. When looking back, a slower passage of time is experienced when we have more vivid and changing memories of an event. Participants in our study were also more absorbed in the present moment. An increased openness to present experience likewise increases memory load in retrospect, which, in turn, evokes the feeling of a slower passage of time. Time expands through the moderate intake of wine, at least for an evening.
The subjective feeling of insightfulness was enhanced. Questions included “I felt very profound," “I gained clarity into connections that puzzled me before,” and “I had very original thoughts.”
Red wine also blurred the differentiation between the self and the environment. Items which showed this change included “Everything seemed to unify into a oneness.”, and “It seemed to me that my environment and I were one.” That does not mean that participants in our study had a full-blown mystical state in which such experiences are reported. They did, however tend to score higher on these questions.
In a sense, we empirically tested and confirmed Edward Slingerland’s theses. According to him, alcohol induces states of consciousness that are essential for the development and cohesion of society and the bonding within and across tribal boundaries.
In our study, the consumption of wine was characterized by bliss and an attentional focus on the present moment, a softening of the differentiation between self and others, having insights, and certain feelings of spirituality. That is the typical ambiguous evaluation we encounter in life. There are positive, as well as negative, sides. Alcohol can destroy one’s life, or that of others. Alcohol in moderate doses can also enrich one’s life spent together with others.
Costa, R. M., Madeira, A., Barata, M., & Wittmann, M. (2021). The power of Dionysus—Effects of red wine on consciousness in a naturalistic setting. Plos one, 16(9), e0256198.
Slingerland, E. (2021). Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization. New York: Little, Brown Spark.