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Liquor Loosens Tongues, but Does It Unlock Minds?

Doctors disagree on whether Mel Gibson's alleged comments reflected actual beliefs.

August 01, 2006|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Behavior experts were split Monday on whether the alleged anti-Semitic comments of Mel Gibson were a reflection of his beliefs or simply gibberish induced by intoxication -- the alcohol talking, in other words.

Remarks such as those Gibson is alleged to have made are "not a product of alcohol," said Dr. Samuel Barondes, Robertson professor of psychology and neurobiology at UC San Francisco. The content of any comments is in a person's head, "in his opinion structure."

Others, however, argue that gross intoxication can lead to a free association of ideas that are unrelated to an individual's true character.

"Basically, the person talks gibberish ... and can behave in a very bizarre way," said Dr. Bankole Johnson, chairman of psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia.

"They might not even be certain of what they are saying. They don't understand what they are saying, and they don't mean what they are saying," Johnson said.

That argument has persisted in the profession for many years and is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, experts said.

"I would imagine that both options are possible," said Dr. Steven Sussman, a professor of preventive medicine and psychology at USC. "I am not sure that anyone knows for sure."

Psychologist Mark Fillmore of the University of Kentucky cites research that has shown that at moderate levels (the legal limit for driving is 0.08% in California), alcohol releases what are known as prepotent responses -- beliefs, thoughts and actions that an individual would normally try to suppress.

"Alcohol doesn't produce new behaviors," he said. "It releases things that people believe or know.... It exaggerates the personality of the individual."

Gibson reportedly had a blood-alcohol level of about 0.12%, which would be well within the range at which such behaviors are manifested, Fillmore said.

But behavior may change if a person is simultaneously taking prescription drugs, such as tranquilizers or benzodiazepines. Such drugs would exacerbate the effects of the alcohol, making people act as if they were grossly intoxicated.

There is no shortage of expert opinions on the drinker who is highly intoxicated: Sussman cautioned that some drunks deliberately say things they don't believe in order to be belligerent or to produce a particular response.

Barondes said that some people when drunk become very aggressive and "sensitive to the smallest slight," and added: "They want to pick a fight with somebody."

At higher levels of intoxication, Fillmore said, drunks "have a breakdown of cognitive functioning. It's difficult for them even to recall what they believe."

In trying to tease apart which behavior is which, Johnson said, it is important to consider how the person behaved previously when drunk.

"If this behavior is new, if no one has witnessed it before," he said, then there is a good possibility it really is the alcohol talking.

But Barondes disagrees. "Alcohol," he said, "doesn't create the ability to say things like 'Jews are controlling the world.' "

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