Drinking makes you sharper? Yes, says UIC professor

March 22, 2013|By Mick Swasko, @mickswasko | RedEye

Ever had a few beers and actually felt a little sharper?

That wouldn’t surprise UIC Psychology professor Jennifer Wiley.

In a study published online last month in the journal Consciousness and Cognition, Wiley shared the results of an experiment she led that included getting participants drunk on vodka cranberries and spotting the differences between two photographs. What she found was that the sober participants were much slower at spotting the differences between the photos than the group that reached about a .07 blood alcohol level.

(Try it yourself. See if you can spot the difference in this set of photos.

“In this study, both groups found the same number of changes, but the people who had been drinking found them faster,” she said.

It’s much like the touch-screen video games at a bar that have a “spot the difference” game, Wiley said. According to her research, those who are a few beers deep might be getting higher scores than their designated driver buddies. In technical terms, those who are drunk are less likely to show “change blindness,” or difficulty making out the difference between two seemingly identical images.

“The reason why we think it’s interesting is because we think it suggests people are using two different strategies,” she said.

Why do the tipsy seem to perform better? She believes it’s because sober people tend to scan the photos systematically, from top to bottom or left to right, for example. But those who have had a few employ a different strategy in their “diffused state.”

“The drunk people are just relaxing and the change popped out to them,” she said.  

This isn’t the first time Wiley has studied the effects of alcohol on cognitive behavior. Last year, she published another study that suggests alcohol can aid in creative problem solving. To do this, a group with a .08 BAC and a sober group were given sets of three words. They were then asked to find a fourth word that would make a phrase out of the other three. For example: the three words “hand,” “split,” and “city” can all be made into two word phrases using “second.” In this experiment, the drunk group not only found the answers faster, but solved more problems than the sober group.

Overall, Wiley said the research isn’t totally about alcohol, but more about how the brain solves problems and uses different strategies in an altered state.

“I think more generally, it’s related to innovation and being able to see things differently,” she said. “We have this other style of thinking, this other diffused state where we’re more flexible. That side of cognition gets overlooked.”

Booze might not be best for every task, however. Wiley said tasks like taxes that demand control of attention are better done sober. Wiley said she’s thought about whether or not filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket is best done after a few beers, but said the verdict is still out.

“I think we can all agree that’s an open question,” she said. 

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