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The Curious Case of the Memory-Boosting Alcohol

Forbes posted an eye-catching headline today: Why Having a Few Drinks Could Help You Remember Better.

Drinking is usually associated with forgetting, so the study (available here) is rather mysterious. It proposes that people who drank alcohol after performing a memorization task were better able to recall what they learned the next day.

That certainly goes against my intuitions. After two or three pints, my conversations may appear intelligent and witty (at least to myself), but I’ll probably forget about them the next day. And the people in this study had an average of six drinks. That seems crazy.

What could be going on here? Should we all stop worrying about our memories and drink more?

Probably not.

For one thing, it’s a single study. Even if it were the best study in the world, it needs more confirmation before acting on it. It also looked at a very specific type of memory performance, and it doesn’t take into account all the other negative effects that alcohol can have on your brain.

But it’s not the best study in the world. For example, it wasn’t double blind—the participants were aware of which condition they were in. Drinkers knew they were drinking, and non-drinkers knew they weren’t. The poor people who were randomly assigned to get non-alcoholic drinks may have just been grumpy and less willing to put effort into the tasks. This possibility is only a guess on my part, but without a double-blind study, it can’t be ruled out.

Maybe the lesson here isn’t to drink more, but to be careful of what you see in science headlines. Everything in moderation—whether it’s alcohol or enthusiasm for the results of a new study.

See how moderation helps your own brain by logging in to Cambridge Brain Sciences and getting your daily brain report (or if you do want to test your memory after a few drinks, we won’t stop you).


This post was written by Mike Battista, a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences.