Wine, what a mystery!

Wine, a multi-millennial beverage closely linked to civilizations around the Mediterranean, has a curious tendency to meddle in mystical affairs… In Antiquity, it was poured during libations, it was personified by Dionysus – who was also god of fire and the mystical trance – it was believed to have revealing virtues (the famous proverb In vino veritas). Then it became the blood of Christ, the symbolism of redemption. Why does this alcoholic product lead to mysticism?

Portuguese researchers from the University of Lisbon carried out a methodical experiment to detail its effects on the psychology of drinkers. Crucially, they wanted to do it, not in the laboratory, but in real taverns in the city, where regulars meet to taste good wines in an atmosphere of socialization or even conviviality – ingredients that are an integral part of the culture of the wine. They gave two glasses of red wine to 102 people who drank alone, in pairs or in groups of six. Just after the tasting, they had them fill out batteries of psychological questionnaires evaluating several facets of the feeling: some of these questionnaires measured the purely hedonic dimension of the wine (the pleasure experienced), others the level of excitement and arousal. of the senses and of the organism, still others the perception of the limits of one’s own body (how clearly one feels the limits between one’s body and the external environment), or the perception of time. Finally, a specific measurement scale was intended to assess what are called “altered states of consciousness”, such as the feeling of being connected to a higher power, of suddenly seeing very clear connections between things or events that seemed dissociated before, or to feel strongly connected to others, even to surrounding objects.

A sense of connection with the world

Analysis of the data revealed a series of striking results: the wine certainly arouses pleasure, but also an increase in the level of arousal (remember that the dose was limited to two glasses, which effectively corresponds to the concentrations of ethanol which stimulate the motivation and reward system without activating the inhibitory circuits of the brain) as well as two alterations in the perception of time. This seems to pass more slowly – without causing boredom – and, above all, perception is focused on the present moment, which seems to be dilated. The subjects have the impression that the present is taking up more space, that the past is shrinking and that the future (in particular its concerns) is fading away.

Living in the present moment… we are not far from a certain Buddhist mantra. But it was by looking at the Altered Consciousness Scale that the researchers discovered the clearest changes: subjects experienced a sense of greater “depth,” reported seeing things that had once seemed obscure to them more clearly, having more precise and vivid ideas and memories, and above all become one with the outside world, as if the limits of their own body were blurring. Here is a characteristic systematically quoted in the experiences of mystical trance, for example in the monks in prayer.

These effects occurred regardless of whether the clients drank alone, in pairs, or in groups of six. High scores were observed in a dimension of the questionnaire called “unity experience”, comprising items such as “I felt like I was one with the surrounding space”, or “I had a feeling of ‘eternity’. Moreover, the consumption of wine also increased the participants’ scores on a dimension called “spiritual experience”, described by items such as “I had the feeling of being connected to a higher power”.

All of these observations thus join the analyzes of William James, the father of modern psychology, who thought that alcohol stimulated the mystical faculties of individuals. The Ancients, unaware of the intricacies of the human brain, attributed the states of “merger”, “depth” and “connection” to supernatural entities. An idea that has remained, to the point that alcohol is still called “spirit of wine”. As if from the spirits to the spiritual, there was only one step, very quickly taken.

Wine, what a mystery!