On a painfully frigid Sunday morning in 2013, I sheepishly stood outside a bar in my college town called KAM’s, watching as a bartender thumbed through a shoebox full of IDs and credit cards like they were old baseball cards. Somewhere in that stack was my card, which I’d left behind merely seven hours earlier and needed to retrieve before driving back to Chicago. But when the bartender asked if my name was “Jim” for the third time, I began to spiral. “What am I doing leaving my credit card at a bar?” I thought. “I’m not in college anymore, I’m 24. I’m an adult. Adults don’t do this.”
But despite that vow to never leave my tab open again, it definitely wasn’t the last time it happened. It turns out that alcohol, even in small doses, slows down the communication between the nerves in your brain, thus inhibiting your short-term memory.
“Have you ever forgotten a name two seconds after someone said it? You didn’t actually forget it, you just weren’t focused and never really knew it in the first place,” White begins. “Alcohol takes away your ability to focus in the first place, aka your memory’s first line of defense, on top of slowing everything in the brain down to the point of inhibiting memory.”
However, given the question at hand, not drinking isn’t really in the cards. So apart from tying a ribbon on your finger or scrawling “TAB” on the back of your hand, how do you remind yourself to sign off after a couple of drinks?
Luckily, White has a few memory hacks up his sleeve. “The reason you can remember details from a car accident 20 years ago and not where you drove last week is that the car accident had action and emotion, while driving to the gas station did not,” he explains. “So when we open a bar tab, sometimes we’re on autopilot and our minds are not focused, especially after alcohol.”
Thus, the next time you open a bar tab, “take three seconds and imagine you’re singing your favorite song on the top of the bar,” White advises. “Or maybe imagine one of your friends or the bartender doing a dance routine on the bar, then jumping off and running out the door.”
The key here is to not only make this imagined scenario as vivid and realistic as possible, but “crazy, funny and unusual” as well. In essence, you’re yanking your brain out of “autopilot” and tricking it into associating the emotion and action of the imagined scenario with the real-world act of opening up a bar tab. “Then, at the end of the night when you walk by the bar — or worse, all the way to the door,” White explains, “both the bar and door should trigger the brain into remembering the crazy story about the bartenders dancing on the bar and springing out the door, which should trigger your memory to go back and pay your bill.”
And so, from here on out, whenever I start a tab, I will be sure to visualize myself jumping up on the bar, parading around with my shirt off, tripping, grasping for support beams that don’t exist, falling to the floor, holding back tears as the DJ brings the music to an abrupt stop, peeling my battered torso off the sticky floor, lurching toward the exit, hitting the locked door and finally escaping before slipping again on a patch of ice.
Oh, and just to be safe, I’m gonna write “TAB” on the back of my hand, too.