Back in college, some of us would bring cases of Busch to the library in order to study and get done whatever assignments we had yet to finish. Whether we were actually productive is lost in my memory, but science says we might have been. While alcohol impairs our ability to concentrate, studies have shown that it increases our creativity and problem-solving, allowing us to successfully complete a task anyway.
In 2017, researchers from the University of Graz, in Austria, had a group of participants take a series of tests and drink either a 5.2 percent ABV beer or a non-alcoholic beer, then watch a half-hour documentary on South Africa and take the series of tests again. While those who drank the alcoholic beer weren’t as able to concentrate as the placebo group and had impeded memory, their creative problem-solving abilities were improved after drinking.
From this study, the researchers speculate that perhaps focus and concentration aren’t as essential to the performance of certain tasks as we think, especially those that might have a creative component. When we’re overly focused, we may become fixated on specific thoughts and unable to think spontaneously.
Why does this happen in the first place, though?
In the short term, experts believe that alcohol produces a sense of relaxation that can apply to areas of cognitive function. We may struggle to focus because the region of the brain that controls it has become “loosened,” so to speak. That looseness can in turn reduce our inhibitions that might suppress creative thinking.
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Of course, there’s definitely a limit. After all, participants in the study from Austria had only consumed one beer. Consuming too many beverages can impair someone’s ability to complete any tasks at all, as nerve function in the brain can be slowed down. In fact, this is why people often can’t remember the events following a night of heavy drinking: Alcohol slows the communication of nerves within the hippocampus, where memories are formed. Eventually, these nerves can become so slowed that the hippocampus temporarily doesn’t form any memories at all.
In the long term, too, drinking can impair memory and overall brain health. In people who abuse alcohol regularly, the nerves in the hippocampus can become damaged or even destroyed. Massachusetts General Hospital categorizes the level of drinking where this can become an issue as 21 or more drinks a week over four years. Severe alcoholics may also lack the proper nutrition (both from their diet and from side effects of drinking, like vomiting) that help the brain function, like vitamin B-1.
Still, in smaller amounts, alcohol might be an effective creative strategy. It’s probably not wise to attempt to complete a final exam while wasted, but working on an essay with a little buzz shouldn’t hurt.
Just be sure to edit sober.