The Brain and the Secondhand Drinking Connection

The Brain and the Secondhand Drinking Connection

Understanding the brain and the secondhand drinking connection is powerful and lays the groundwork for my next two posts, “Causes of Secondhand Drinking,” and “The Fight-or-Flight Stress Response System (FFSRS) – Secondhand Drinking’s Best Friend.”

Today’s article is Part 3 in’s celebration of April as Alcohol Awareness Month, 2014. So, in case you missed the first two, I explained the term Secondhand Drinking (SHD) as the other side of the drinking equation in the first article, which was followed by my April 7th post, Why the Term Secondhand Drinking. Today I’m sharing a bit about the new brain research I keep talking about. When we understand how the brain goes together, we can better understand why it comes apart with drinking and ongoing exposure to SHD, for example. This, then, helps us appreciate and embrace the suggestions for what we can do to put it back together – to return it to health.

The Brain and the Secondhand Drinking Connection  

We can now answer the kinds of “why” questions posed in this previous post thanks to new imaging technologies of the recent 15-20 years, such as fMRI (shows where the brain activity is occurring) and SPECT (shows the health of the brain).

These imaging technologies allow neuroscientists and medical professionals to study the human brain. They can see the changes it goes through as it develops. They can see the impacts of mental illness, head trauma or repeated alcohol misuse and so much more.

Learning the basics of how the brain controls everything a person thinks, feels, says and does helps explain the causes and impacts of SHD. It also helps you develop self-protection and prevention skills.

The Brain’s Communication System  

When you understand how the brain goes together, you can appreciate what causes it to come apart and what it takes to fix it.

Neural Networks – How Cells Talk to One Another
The brain controls everything through neural networks.  Neural networks are the way brain cells (neurons) talk to one another. They, in turn, exchange information with other neurons throughout the body via the nervous system.

This “talking” is done through an electrical-chemical signaling process. This is easier to understand if you think of neural networks as strands of holiday lights. Anything that happens along a strand of holiday lights – a loose bulb, frayed wire, power surge – changes how that strand works. This in turn changes how all other strands connected to it work.

The following is a simplified description of the basics of a neural network, which is illustrated in the image below. Remember anything that changes any one of these “things” will change the way the neural network performs (like a strand of holiday lights). If you change the way neural networks perform, you change behaviors.

Basics of a Neural Network

Basics of a Neural Network

  • Cue or Trigger (a sound, sight, touch, smell, memory, emotion…something that triggers the electrical signaling to start the neural network)
  • Brain cells (neurons)
  • Branchlike extensions (outgoing and incoming)
  • Neurotransmitter (chemical messengers located at the end of the outgoing branchlike extensions that change the neuron’s electrical signal into chemical that can float across the synapse; other neurotransmitters help with the start and stop of the signaling)
  • Synapse (the gap between the branchlike extensions of a brain cell/neuron)
  • Receptors (at the end of the incoming branchlike extension that accept the neurotransmitter – like a “key in a door lock” – and change it back into an electrical signal to carry on the message to the receiving brain cell/neuron)

Brain Maps for the Things We Do
Through a series of connections, neural networks form systems between the brain and other organs to control our body’s major functions. This includes the fight-or-flight stress response system, for example, as well as the circulatory and digestive systems. Neural networks also work together to form embedded “brain maps.” There is an expression to describe this brain mapping process, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Embedded brain maps take very little, if any, thought. They just happen. And thank goodness they do. If we did not have these embedded brain maps, we would still be trying to get out of bed because the millions of neuron connections needed to do that simple function would take forever to hook together. [This also points to the difficulty in changing brain maps (basically habits).]

Over the course of our lives, we create brain maps for all of the functions our bodies and brains do on a regular basis. We create brain maps for riding a bike or typing on a computer or talking on the phone or reading a book or running, breathing, reciting multiplication tables, eating, talking with our hands, playing an instrument, texting—just think about it!

Basically, then, brain maps are habits, coping skills, life skills and typical behaviors.

Where in the Brain Are You 

Science groups neural network activity into three main areas in the brain - as shown in the image above. The one of particular interest in discussions about Secondhand Drinking and Drinking Behaviors is the Limbic System.

Science groups neural network activity into three main areas in the brain – as shown in the image above. The one of particular interest in discussions about Secondhand Drinking and Drinking Behaviors is the Limbic System.

There are three general groups of neural network activity, sometimes called sub-brains. They are the cerebellum, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex. This means neural network activity in these three areas is responsible for the behaviors described in the image to the right.

And this is important. Why? Because it explains that if your neural networks are controlling your behaviors from the limbic system, for example, you are not “thinking,” you are “reacting.”  

And why is this important to know? Because the limbic system is where neural networks involved with drinking behaviors and SHD-related stress get triggered (cued). And the brain pays close attention to things that happen in the limbic system. This is because the behaviors controlled by neural networks in the limbic system were (and are) critical to the survival of the human species. (More on this in a later post.)

Wiring Brain Maps  

Understanding this part helps you understand why and how we form brain maps that become our habits, coping skills and typical behaviors, including those related to drinking behaviors and SHD.

At Birth
We are born with about 100 billion brain cells (aka neurons), but only a small number of them are “wired” at birth. This makes sense when you think about it. If all of our neural networks were wired at birth, we would come out doing what we do as adults. But about all a baby’s neural networks do is allow it to breathe, eat, sleep, cry, smile and dirty their diapers. Thus, from birth, our brains are wiring neural networks like crazy because we need them for everything we think, feel, say and do. (Please know the brain is also wiring en utero, which is why women should avoid drinking while pregnant.)  

First Decade  
In the first decade of life, the brain wires trillions of neural networks. This is why key risk factors, such as childhood trauma (verbal, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, bullying, SHD-related stress), mental illness (anxiety, depression, ADHD) and social environment have such a big influence on the developing brain and a child’s behaviors. Genetics is another significant influence. So are a child’s own thoughts and behaviors and lack of cerebral cortex wiring (explained shortly).   

Then Comes Puberty Around Age 12
Puberty is an instinctual wiring process (meaning it is built into the human species).  It causes lots of neural network wiring activity–especially in the limbic system (the reactionary, not thinking, part of the brain).  The purpose of puberty-related brain wiring is to cause the species to turn to its peers and take risks. It is also to take care of the obvious–-adult-like bodies capable of reproducing. These three instinctual drives (take risks, turn to peers and reproduce) were critical to the survival of the human species back in the day when mankind had a simpler, shorter lifespan and parents were likely dead, unable to protect a child from around age 12 on.

And Finally, the “Thinking” Part of the Brain
Today, however, these instinctual drives can be a bit of a problem because we live much longer, more complex lives. Here’s why. There is about a four-year lag time between the start of puberty around age 12 and the start of the last stage of brain development—wiring in the cerebral cortex. As described in the image above, the cerebral cortex is responsible for sound reasoning, good judgment and weighing the consequences of one’s actions. It is also the brakes on the risk taking behaviors that start with puberty. And it is when the brain starts to “prune” neural networks not used much and “strengthen” those that are. This pruning and strengthening process is designed to make the brain more efficient.

Dr. Paul Thompson's 10-year time lapse study of brain development ages 5-20 show just how much wiring - brain maturity - occurs from approximately ages 16-20. It's now understood this maturity process continues until roughly age 25.

Dr. Paul Thompson’s 10-year time lapse study of brain development ages 5-20 show just how much wiring – brain maturity – occurs from approximately ages 16-20. It’s now understood this maturity process continues until roughly age 25.

As stated, back in the day life decisions were pretty simple, mostly focused on survival – finding food, staying safe and reproducing. Today, our lives are far more complicated and much longer. This means the consequences of the mistakes we make and the brain mapping we set into place as teens can last for a very long lifetime (unless we take steps to correct or fix them, of course).

Why Ages 16-25 Matter So Much
While wiring in the cerebral cortex starts around age 16, it takes until around age 22 for girls and age 24 for boys to complete. The darker colors in the image to the right show us just how much brain development is happening.

This lag time between the start of puberty and the start of the cerebral cortex wiring helps explain why teens make poor “decisions.” It also explains why “Just Say, ‘No,’” typically doesn’t work and why teen brains handle alcohol and SHD-related stress (explained shortly) differently than adult brains.  Lastly, it helps us understand that the neural networks strengthened during this period of brain development typically become our brain maps for many of our adult-like habits, coping skills, life skills and behaviors.  These can include drinking behaviors and unhealthy ways of coping with SHD.


Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation - drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

Raising awareness about both sides of the drinking equation – drinking behaviors and secondhand drinking.

No One Sets Out To Cause Secondhand Drinking And No One Sets Out To Cope With It In Harmful Ways

This science and this common term can help those causing and those coping learn what it takes to change. Visit again next week to read more about this science in Part 4 of my Alcohol Awareness Month 2014 celebration!


©2014 Lisa Frederiksen – the above article shares portions from two upcoming books of mine. One is a book titled, Secondhand Drinking in Our Workplaces, Schools, Families and Communities The other is a very abbreviated version (from which this piece is taken) for a QuickSeries guide, titled, Secondhand Drinking: Prevention and Protection, to be published later this year for use by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Army, Navy, U.S. Forest Service and similar groups.

If you have questions or would like to talk further about secondhand drinking or my SHD consulting, training and presentation services for individuals, families and businesses, please give me a call at 650-362-3026 or email me at

In case you are reading this out of sequence, here are the links to all posts in this series:


Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.
Lisa Frederiksen

Latest posts by Lisa Frederiksen (see all)

7 Responses to The Brain and the Secondhand Drinking Connection

  1. Great information here, Lisa! I particularly love the Wiring Brain Maps section where you break out the stage of brain development. Unfortunately, so many of us have to learn these lessons the hard way, when second hand drinking and/or drugging is dropped in our laps. The brain development information explains so clearly why teens are particularly vulnerable to substance use which can lead to addiction. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome – it sure explained a lot for me, as well. Hopefully future substance abuse prevention messages will include this science as well as the SHD prevention message. The young people with whom I work tell me they find these two messages extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and comment, Cathy!

  2. Herby Bell says:


    I smiled upon reading, “Where in the brain are you.” A question I ask myself multiple times/day in our hussle-bussle lifestyle. And seriously, a great thing to know and consider when life happens. Thank you.

    You “map” it out so comprehensively and for me especially, “Why ages 16 to 25 matter so much” in brain development…IMO, what every family in America needs to learn and re-learn as we so often initiate our kids into the alcoholic culture unconsciously. Thank you for yet another scholarly and most helpful post.

    • You’re welcome! I find the whole brain development piece of all this so HUGE! It explains a great deal of what happens to both sides (SHD and person causing drinking behaviors) and why both sides wire unhealthy coping skills and behaviors. It is my hope that “The Science of Why” information/education programs I’ve developed will be picked up by schools and underage substance prevention programs to help youth (and parents) understand the power of their brain (which is their power). I appreciate you reading and adding your comment, Herby!

  3. Great explanation of the brain and secondhand drinking connection. You went into some good details. It’s amazing how much of an effect each developmental stage can have on our brain. Thanks for sharing.

    • Isn’t it though! I found that research especially fascinating, myself, and it explains so much of why youth (i.e., youth brains) are especially affected by drinking (or drug use) and/or ongoing SHD exposure. Thank you very much for your comment.

  4. […] Dance of the Family Disease of Addiction and that you’ve been deeply changed, too – check out The Brain and the Secondhand Drinking Connection, as […]

Leave a reply