Have you ever had a couple drinks and your mind started wandering in a booze-induced haze? If you can’t remember that happening, that’s probably because you had a couple of drinks. A new study in the journal Psychological Science suggests that alcohol has the dual effect of causing our minds to wander while not noticing that we’ve zoned out.
After a pre-drink assessment to make sure that they weren’t just space cadets, study subjects were brought into a drink-mixing room and presented with all the makings of a vodka and cranberry juice cocktail. They were told to drink a small dose over a ten-minute period, and then a 20-minute period, and a 30-minute period. What some of the subjects didn’t know is that they were drinking flat tonic water and juice, with vodka smeared on the glass to enhance believability.
Afterward, subjects were asked if they’d ever read War and Peace (they had not), and were then told to read the tome for 30 minutes. Just before they started, they were given a definition of “zoning out” that went like this — “At some point during reading, you realize that you have no idea what you just read; and not only were you not thinking about the text, but you were thinking about something else altogether.”
While reading, they were told to press a key on a keyboard labeled ZO whenever they felt themselves zoning out. And every two to four minutes after they hit the ZO key, a prompt would come up on a monitor asking them,”Were you zoning out?” — in response to which they were to press a “yes” or “no” key.
The results: subjects who drank alcohol zoned out without realizing it about 25% of the time while reading, double that of the tonic water placebo group. And with double the opportunities for catching themselves wandering, you’d think the alcohol subjects would catch themselves zoning at least a little more than the sober group, right? Wrong. They were exceptionally bad at noticing when their minds had floated into the ether.
What does this tell us? Researchers who conducted the study think that alcohol amplifies attention drift — the tendency to shift focus onto immediately engaging things (I’m really hungry, where’s my cheeseburger?) with the added dimension of not even realizing we’re not focusing on whatever it was we were supposed to focus on. In other words, at the risk of stating the obvious, this is yet another way that alcohol impairs self-regulation. As if we need any help with that.