In Bizarre Experiment, Getting Drunk Seems to Improve Memory

If you want to ace that final, have a few pints after you study.

As a senior in college, it was my near-nightly routine to sit down at my desk, pour a tall glass of cheap bourbon, and work on a quantum physics problem set or neurophysiology lab report. Somehow, I graduated.

Well, according to new research published Monday in Scientific Reports, I may actually owe my passing grades to those countless glasses of whiskey. The paper found that people who drank as much as they liked after learning new, made-up words in a memory task actually performed better than their sober counterparts when it came time to recall those words the next morning.

Conventional psychology says that people have the best recollection when they both learn and recall something while sober, though being drunk for both is better than being either sober and then drunk or vice versa. But this new paper is different — everyone was sober when they learned the new words, which were made up by adding extra letters to existing words like “frenzylk,” and then half of the participants were encouraged to drink as much as they wanted at a bar for two hours while the others stayed sober.

Participants were then brought to their homes and asked to complete a test to see how well they remembered both the made-up words and a series of images they had been shown earlier. The scientists wanted to complete the test in the bar for as natural a social setting as possible, but the barkeeps allegedly resisted and threw them out. So in-home testing it was.

The researchers expected to see a drop-off in performance when testing right after people left the bar, but there was no difference between the drunk and sober cohorts. And when they were tested again the next day, the drinkers, who were still a bit drunk according to a breathalyzer, outperformed the non-drinking group. In fact, the more people drank, the better they did on their tests on average.

"Estimated" is key here, since the scientists asked participants to keep track of their own drinks after setting them loose in a bar for two hours.

University of Exeter

The psychologists who conducted this rad experiment don’t quite know why the drunk people had a better memory, but they have some guesses that are grounded in neuroscience. It’s well-known that the hippocampus, the region of the brain most related to the formation of new memories, is impaired when alcohol makes its way to the brain. At that point, it creates fewer new memories and switches to its other role — consolidating and storing the memories that were already collected.

So the brains of the group that started throwing back cold ones after learning the new words was working more towards storing what they already knew, whereas the sober group was still taking in new information.

These brave people woke up drunk... for science!

University of Exeter

Also, getting drunk fosters what’s called “slow wave sleep,” or where the rhythm of a sleeper’s brain waves slows down. Scientists think that these slower brain waves further help consolidate memories of the day before, so this study may have tapped into that as well.

Sure, this is a pretty preliminary study, and, yes, it doesn’t go into the cognitive downsides of getting drunk, but still, this might be the best excuse yet for pouring yourself a drink.

Alcohol is known to facilitate memory if given after learning information in the laboratory; we aimed to investigate whether this effect can be found when alcohol is consumed in a naturalistic setting. Eighty-eight social drinkers were randomly allocated to either an alcohol self-dosing or a sober condition. The study assessed both retrograde facilitation and alcohol induced memory impairment using two independent tasks. In the retrograde task, participants learnt information in their own homes, and then consumed alcohol ad libitum. Participants then undertook an anterograde memory task of alcohol impairment when intoxicated. Both memory tasks were completed again the following day. Mean amount of alcohol consumed was 82.59 grams over the evening. For the retrograde task, as predicted, both conditions exhibited similar performance on the memory task immediately following learning (before intoxication) yet performance was better when tested the morning after encoding in the alcohol condition only. The anterograde task did not reveal significant differences in memory performance post-drinking. Units of alcohol drunk were positively correlated with the amount of retrograde facilitation the following morning. These findings demonstrate the retrograde facilitation effect in a naturalistic setting, and found it to be related to the self-administered grams of alcohol.
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