An interesting study out of the University of Illinois has cast some doubt on a commonly held belief about alcohol, namely that drinking only impairs cognitive abilities. Researchers found that men who had either consumed two pints of beer or two glasses of wine not only performed better on a test of problem solving, but also completed the test faster.
The benefit provided by alcohol was quite significant; subjects with a BAC of 0.07 or higher solved 40% more problems and finished the tasks an average of 2.5 seconds sooner than the sober participants.
These findings cast some doubt on the common belief that alcohol harms the ability to think rationally. Researchers believe the relevant mechanism is alcohol’s ability to reduce the brain’s working memory capacity, which is what allows focused concentration on one particular thing. Previous studies have shown a positive relationship between working memory capacity and analytical problem solving skills, which only adds to the unexpected nature of the results.
The researchers believe that being too focused on one particular angle when attempting to solve a problem could inhibit one from exploring other possibilities. By reducing working memory, and therefore the ability to focus sharply on one angle, alcohol could promote a more flexible state of attention that would allow for more creative solutions.
Of course, this effect doesn’t increase linearly with the amount of alcohol consumed. Once one’s BAC gets too high, all benefits to problem solving are quickly reversed.
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