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Amuse-Bouche: Why alcohol makes your head spin + Corpse Reviver No. 2

Ever wonder why it feels like your like head is spinning, following a bout of heavy drinking? Turns out you have your inner ear to blame.

I remember the first time I drank more than I should have: I returned to my dorm room and lay down in bed, and immediately the whole room began to spin around me. It was pretty unsettling, not to mention nauseating.

The following video (hat tip to spirits writer Camper English, who posted it to Twitter) explains the role the inner ear, and specifically the cupula, played in that unforgettable experience:

For those who didn’t watch the video, the explanation is something like this: Alcohol builds up more quickly in the cupula (a gelatinous structure inside the semicircular canal that helps you tell how you’re moving in space) than it does in the rest of the canal. It takes approximately 3 to 5 hours for alcohol to fill the rest of the canal, and during that time there is a difference in the density of the cupula and its surroundings–the cupula is less dense, causing it to float. This means your inner ear is now sensitive to gravity, which it should not be in order to function properly. Therefore, if  you lie on your side, your cupula will float upwards, giving you the sensation of accelerating toward the side you’re resting on.

Eventually the rest of the semicircular canal fills with alcohol, and the sensation goes away, but because the alcohol will drain out of the cupula first, there will again be a density differential, and the sensation will be reversed. The filmmaker explains that this is why there is some truth to the whole “hair of the dog” theory that drinking a little bit the morning after can help alleviate some of the effects of a hangover: by drinking you’re bringing the densities into balance again (but of course, this only works temporarily).

For more details (including tips on how to use your other senses to counteract this sensation, a problem that pilots sometimes having, and the cutest drawing of a hungover bunny ever), watch the video.

If you’re interested in testing out the hair of the dog theory for yourself, here’s a classic cocktail that was designed for that purpose. The Corpse Reviver No. 2, as its name implies, was one of a class of drinks meant to bring one back from the dead, so to speak. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you use it for that function, but it is delicious (and a nice introduction to absinthe for those who aren’t sure they’ll like the taste).

Corpse Reviver No. 2

  • 3/4 oz gin
  • 3/4 oz Lillet blanc or Cocchi Americano
  • 3/4 oz Cointreau
  • 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
  • Dash absinthe

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake to chill. Double-strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a brandied cherry.

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Anne S

Anne S

Anne Sauer is an atheist with an appetite for science, good food, and making connections between the two. She is currently pursuing her MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her favorite foods are salted caramel ice cream and chicken tikka masala. You can find her on twitter @aynsavoy.

5 Comments

  1. February 21, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Excellent, I have all the ingredients for the Corpse Reviver. Coincidentally, I have a bit of a thing about avoiding hangovers over here:
    http://wdonohue.posterous.com/some-advice-for-those-who-imbibe-strong-liquo

  2. February 21, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Those cards are neat! I plan to do more posts in the future about other elements of drinking that affect hangovers, and myths about that as well.

  3. February 21, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    The images in WD’s link are borked for me. I’ll try again at home.

  4. February 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    P.s. That drink looks like it would kick my ass 😀 Love these posts!

  5. February 21, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Maki – the images are gray-scale PNG files. If you need them in a different formate, I’d be happy to send you a PDF or TIFF.

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