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Drinking alcohol may improve ability to detect changes

Drunk and sober people both notice the same amount of changes, but those who have been drinking notice them more quickly, a study has shown.

Image: Drinking alcohol image via Shutterstock

MODERATE INTOXICATION MAY help a person notice minor changes in a visual scene, researchers at the University of Illinois (UIC) in Chicago have found.

During tests of “change blindness,” the inability to notice minor changes, intoxicated participants detected as many changes as sober subjects and with shorter response times.

The new study, published in Consciousness and Cognition this week, consisted of 48 men who were split into drinking and non-drinking groups. Everyone in the group was given a baseline task to make sure both groups were equal from the beginning.

Both groups then watched an animated movie with the drinking group consuming vodka and cranberry juice until they reached the legal limit of intoxication.

Researchers then used a flicker paradigm, which switches back and forth between two versions of the same image with one change, and participants had to say whether they noticed a change and identify it.

Professor Jennifer Wiley, the senior author of the study, said people typically use one of two strategies when searching for visual changes.

“As western readers in the US, we usually start at the top-left corner and scan back and forth looking for anything that might be changing,” she said.

An alternative method is not to scan – rather than focusing attention, the subject waits for the change to “pop out.”

“Our suspicion is that the sober people are using a more systematic, methodical strategy, and the drunk people are waiting for the ‘pop out,’” Wiley said.

“Both the sober and drunk people find the same number of changes, but drunk people find them faster.”

A second experiment, using working memory tasks – which require focused attention – proved more difficult for the intoxicated group. These tests require remembering sequences of letters or shapes while performing another task, such as solving a math problem, at the same time.

“These tests require you to go back and forth between two tasks, which means you need to be directing your attention,” Wiley said. “So there is a lot of updating, and a lot of back and forth. Drunk people are less able to do this, and they did 15 to 30 percent worse on these tasks.”

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