What happens to the brain when we drink alcohol? In recent years, scientists have discovered that booze works by binding to and potentiating a specific GABA receptor subtype. (GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian brain, which means it helps to regulate and quiet cellular activity.) While it remains unclear how, exactly, these chemical tweaks produce the psychological changes triggered by a beer or bourbon, a new study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh (along with Jonathan Schooler, at UCSB) have found one intriguing new side-effect of alcohol: it makes the mind more likely to wander, and makes us less likely to notice that our mind is wandering. The article is wittily titled “Lost in the Sauce”.
Obviously, this research helps explain those warnings on liquor bottles about drinking and operating heavy machinery. It’s not a good idea to let your mind wander uncontrollably when you’re driving a car, especially since alcohol also seems to reduce activity in the motor and cerebellar regions required for the execution of complex movements.
But there’s a larger idea here, and it involves the constant tension in the mind between paying attention to the outside world versus our own internal thoughts. Alcohol seems to shift the balance, so that our babbling stream of consciousness suddenly seems much more entertaining. Unfortunately, that means we’re paying much less attention to external reality. In other words, alcohol makes us more interesting and everything else less interesting.
This phenomenon also helps explain, I think, the pleasurable side-effects of booze. (People have been drinking beer for nearly 8000 years.) Schooler and others have argued that the wandering mind is actually an essential mental tool, since it allows us to uncouple our thoughts from the here and now. Here’s how I described the research in a recent article:
In recent years, scientists have demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind – so fundamental, in fact, that it’s often referred to as our “default” mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings, the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings.
“If your mind didn’t wander, then you’d be largely shackled to whatever you are doing right now,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But instead you can engage in mental time travel and other kinds of simulation. During a daydream, your thoughts are really unbounded.”
The ability to think abstractly that flourishes during daydreams also has important social benefits. Mostly, what we daydream about is each other, as the mind retrieves memories, contemplates “what if” scenarios, and thinks about how it should behave in the future. In this sense, the content of daydreams often resembles a soap opera, with people reflecting on social interactions both real and make-believe. We can leave behind the world as it is and start imagining the world as it might be, if only we hadn’t lost our temper, or had superpowers, or were sipping a daiquiri on a Caribbean beach. It is this ability to tune out the present moment and contemplate the make-believe that separates the human mind from every other.
But this doesn’t mean you should go out and start drinking during your workday. While mind wandering can be an important mental strategy, it’s most helpful when we’re still able to notice that our mind is wandering, which is precisely what alcohol interferes with. In his experiments, Schooler distinguishes between two types of daydreaming. The first type occurs when people notice they are daydreaming only when prodded by the researcher. Although they’ve been told to press a button as soon as they realize their mind has started to wander, these people fail to press the button. The second type of daydreaming occurs when people catch themselves during the experiment – they notice their mind is daydreaming without needing to be questioned. Schooler hypothesizes that people who are unaware of their mind wandering experience fewer cognitive benefits, since they also fail to notice when their stream of consciousness produces a useful or creative insight. In other words, we need to occasionally decouple our attention from the outside world – the mind is a fount of useful associations – but we can’t let ourselves disappear down the rabbit hole of consciousness. “The point is that it’s not enough to just daydream,” Schooler says. “Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative thought.”
Extra-credit question: Is there a drug or “cognitive enhancer” that might increase mind wandering but not simultaneously reduce meta-awareness? You’d probably have to ramp up activity in the default circuitry but without inhibiting the prefrontal cortex. My best proposal is a positive mood (which isn’t a drug, I know), since there’s suggestive evidence that being happy makes us more creative.