The Frontal Cortex

Daydreaming and Booze

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Devan
    June 9, 2009

    Also not a drug, but: You might consider increased meta-awareness the primary goal (or outcome, at least) of many forms of zen meditation—which is probably why nobody meditates drunk.

  2. #2 Mike
    June 9, 2009

    “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.”

    This is a serious question.

    If happiness and positive thoughts are more conducive to creative thought, why are some of the most creative or prolific artists generally sad individuals? Would Keats have had the same poetic prowess if he hadn’t lamented over his own impending untimely demise? Would Kind of Blue sound the same had Miles Davis and John Coltrane been happy and well adjusted? It seems like artists who we praise for their creativity are generally very unhappy people.

  3. #3 Alan F
    June 9, 2009

    I read something about people who think about death frequently being much happier. i looked for it, and found it in the Time. It seems that facing the thoughts of death could cause us to seek happy thoughts. So, it’s possible those artists were happier contemplating death, despite the fact that they come across as morbid to us.

  4. #4 greg sargent
    June 9, 2009

    This reminds me of the author of: In Search Excellence, who talks about the benefits of the old “three martini lunches”.

  5. #5 OftenWrongTed
    June 9, 2009

    William James had something to say about booze: “If merely ‘feeling good’ could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.” Quoted from THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, lecture one.

  6. #6 Evil Rocks
    June 9, 2009

    Yeah it’s called Cannabis Sativa.

  7. #7 Glen
    June 9, 2009

    I’ve been thinking a lot about daydreaming lately, and here’s what I’ve got so far.

    I’m currently experimenting on myself. My hypothesis is that my recent depressive episodes are a result of focusing too much on getting school work done and not having enough time to relax/unwind/play/daydream. So I’m taking mandatory “daydream” breaks where I try to force myself to daydream. The article you quote says that daydreaming is the “default” mode of thinking, but I’ve found I get into spiraling and obsessive analytical thought (grounded almost entirely in reality) much more often and have to consciously direct my mind to daydreaming, especially about nonsensical or playful things.

    It will be interesting to see if this method helps me.

  8. #8 Dunc
    June 10, 2009

    If happiness and positive thoughts are more conducive to creative thought, why are some of the most creative or prolific artists generally sad individuals?

    Well, there’s probably a correlation there, but the direction of causation is debatable. Are creative individuals creative because they’re sad, or are they sad because they’re creative? Or is there a third factor (say, emotional sensitivity and the ability to empathise with others) which leads to both creativity and sadness?

  9. #9 TJ
    June 10, 2009

    Answer to extra-credit question: Piracetam

  10. #10 amybuilds
    June 10, 2009


    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.)

    I contemplate my daughter with FAS and I think about how part of her permanent brain damage includes her inability to control response. She has little if any inhibition. She’s like that kid in the Life Cereal ad, she’ll try anything. It seems the alcohol introduced to the growing fetus hits those developing GABA receptors…

  11. #11 amybuilds
    June 10, 2009

    Oh, and she’d a very happy child. People love to be around her because she is so sunny…

  12. #12 Amy
    June 10, 2009

    Thanks for the post on this study. The capacity for “interruption” is a key aspect of our ability to daydream. Generally, we can snap quickly out of daydreams as some external event punctures the dream. In other words, we can respond to what we need to and move in and out of daydreams at lightning speed.

    It’s as if the brain has made some bargain— the possibility of an occasional missed cue (i.e., a missed exit sign) for the extra brain power we get via daydreaming. On the whole, it’s a process that seems to work well—with some exceptions as pointed out in the study.
    “Some part of the brain has to know,” says researcher Malia Mason, “what we can get away with” in terms of daydreaming vs. real-world attention, and it looks like this study is getting us closer to that answer.

    Glen—You bring up an interesting point regarding daydreams and their relation to depression. There are conflicting points of view, but one theory is that depression is possibly the absence of daydreams. Depressed people may have lost their ability (temporarily) to soothe themselves with daydreams and to nurture hope in this state. So I think it’s a good idea to make more time and space for daydreaming.
    If anyone is interested, my nonfiction trade book on the topic was just published. It’s called Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers, and you can read more about it at DaydreamsAtWork.com

  13. #13 Randy
    June 11, 2009

    This certainly does give credence to the notion that life is itself a threat to existence and ‘escape’ (fear) is what humans automatically want to choose.

    And that feeling, nivanna, when nothing is wrong is surreal…I think people’s goals/dreams are really just an attempt to create an environment of surreality…and alcohol is a short-cut to set that up temporarily.

    It’s a tool to escape…food, whatever, a vice is just an escape tool used to evade confronting reality.

  14. #14 Kenneth
    June 12, 2009

    “Is there a drug or “cognitive enhancer” that might increase mind wandering but not simultaneously reduce meta-awareness?”

    Kava kava?

  15. #15 malcolm Boyd
    June 15, 2009

    I have found that a brisk walk or hike has a recuperative effect on my emotions and thus my creative thinking. my mind wanders frequently, I simply require mundane activity to inspire me.

  16. #16 davidavid
    June 30, 2009

    This one is easy (someday science will catch up): sugar-free Red Bull & vodka…with a lemon wedge.