Most of us can recall a night from college (or maybe even more recently) when we drank a little too much and ended up blacking out. You then wake up the next morning and have to ask your friends what in the hell happened last night because you can’t remember anything.
Sure, drinking too much isn’t good for your memory, but researchers have found that in certain instances, having a couple drinks might actually help to reinforce what you learned. Don't believe us? Just keep reading.
This phenomenon is called “state-specific recall,” and it refers to the specific circumstances where alcohol can actually help you recall things, specifically if you drink after learning or studying for something.
Essentially, alcohol and other stimulants cause a specific neurological state, so your brain will take notice of that. We can liken this to mood. For example, if you’re in a specific mood when something noteworthy happens, you’re more likely to remember that thing again later when you’re in the same mood.
Essentially, learning and retaining information is often dependent on outside factors other than what’s going on neurologically in your head. So if you were to have a couple glasses of wine with dinner and your friend tells you an interesting bit of information, your brain will encode your slight state of intoxication as part of the memory, and therefore if you were to have another couple drinks a few days later, your brain will be better able to retrieve that information.
After they completed the word-learning task, the study participants were then broken up into two groups at random. One group was instructed to drink as much as they wanted, while the other was instructed not to drink at all. The average number of drinks for the first group was four.
The next day, the study had the participants do the exact same thing all over again — they completed the word-learning task and then either drank as much alcohol as they wanted or did not drink at all.
The researchers found that those who had consumed alcohol actually remembered more of what they had learned. Professor Celia Morgan (pictured) says, “Our research not only showed that those who drank alcohol did better when repeating the word-learning task, but that this effect was stronger among those who drank more.”
The outcome of this particular study had been found in a laboratory setting before, however, what makes this study different is that it was conducted in a “natural” setting where people were drinking the alcohol in their homes.
If you’re still a little confused about this whole thing, don’t worry; the researchers themselves don’t fully understand this phenomenon. Morgan also says that, “the causes of this effect are not fully understood, but the leading explanation is that alcohol blocks the learning of new information and therefore the brain has more resources available to lay down other recently learned information into long-term memory.”
Neurobiologist Hitoshi Morikawa told ScienceDaily: “Alcohol diminishes our ability to hold on to pieces of information like your colleague’s name, or the definition of a word, or where you parked your car this morning … But our subconscious is learning and remembering too, and alcohol may actually increase our capacity to learn, or ‘conditionability,’ at that level.”
If you’re not into drinking alcohol but still want to cram for a test, research has also suggested that caffeine can produce a similar effect on memory that alcohol does. We’re not suggesting that you regularly pull caffeine-fueled all-nighters right before every exam, but if you do find yourself in that position, consuming caffeine might be helpful with memory retention!
And of course, we’ve got to throw in this disclaimer: we’re not telling you not to go out and get stupidly drunk...we’re not your mother. However, this phenomenon isn’t going to work if you get blackout-drunk right after you study for a final exam, so don’t blame us if you do that and fail your test!