Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dude, where’s my metaconsciousness?

“Lost in the sauce.”

I have to admit I was taken with the opening sentence of this 2009 study published in Psychological Sciences: “Alcohol consumption alters consciousness in ways that make drinking both alluring and hazardous.”

Indeed it does. There’s no improving on that direct statement about the basic paradox presented by booze: Like so many pleasures, it is both seductive and dangerous. I was further intrigued by the prospects held out by the abstract, which promised “a rigorous examination of the effects of alcohol on experiential consciousness and metaconsciousness.” After all, we have come a long ways from the 50s, when alcohol was seen in Freudian terms, as a way of releasing tension, steam-engine style.

The study, by Michael A. Sayette and Erik D. Reichle of the University of Pittsburgh in Santa Barbara, along with Jonathan Schooler of the University of California at Santa Barbara, walks us through the salient recent theories, including the alcohol-myopia theory that gained a foothold in the 90s. In this theory, alcohol “reduces processing capacity so that a great proportion of this capacity has to be devoted to the demands of immediate, ongoing activity.” Like remaining upright, or inserting a key in the lock of a door. It also means that alcohol consciousness is precarious. The pissed-off office worker who comes home to drink may relieve his worries “if he is distracted by television, but he may ‘cry in his beer’ if no such distraction is available.”

One of the alluring and hazardous affects of alcohol is its tendency to cause what the study authors meticulously refer to scientifically as: zoning out. That is to say, episodes of mind wandering.

Enjoy drinking while you read? Listen to this: “Participants who drank alcohol were mind-wandering without awareness of doing so about 25% of the time that they were engaged in the reading task. This frequency was more than double that for participants in the placebo condition.”

The study—“Lost in the Sauce: The Effects of Alcohol on Mind Wandering?”—investigated “the effect of alcohol on both the occurrence of mind wandering and the capacity to notice that one’s mind has wandered.” The psychologists gathered 50 men between 21 and 35, put them in a lab, and then split them into a control group and test group. The participants entered the “drink-mixing room where a research was waiting with a tray containing a chilled vodka bottle, a bottle of chilled cranberry-juice cocktail (Ocean Spray), a glass, a graduate cylinder, and a beaker.”

Participants are never in short supply for this kind of clinical study. For half the group, the bottle contained 100-proof Smirnoff. The placebo group got flattened tonic water in a glass pre-slimed with vodka, and were later given fake blood-alcohol test results to further the illusion that they’d had a little alcohol. The drinking participants achieved a mean blood alcohol level of 0.067. Participants in the placebo group received a bogus reading of 0.045, which is the “highest credible reading for deceived participants.”

How did the researchers know if the drinkers were zoning out? They asked. But first, they set them to work reading the first five chapters of War and Peace on a computer. The experimenters asked each participant if they had read War and Peace, in whole or in part, before the experiment, and “all indicated that they had not.” (Men aged 21 to 35, recall.) Their task was to read the first 34 pages of the book, or read for 30 minutes, whichever came first. Before starting, the researchers drilled them on the technical description of zoning out: “At some point during reading, you realize that you have no idea what you just read.”

That’s it in a nutshell, and as we all know, you don’t have to be drunk to experience that effect—but it helps. We have all been witness to the drunk who “loses the thread” of his or her monologue and heads off in another linguistic direction altogether, without apparently noticing the shift. The researchers asked participants to hit a special key, helpfully marked “ZO,” when they noticed during reading that they had zoned out. And they used an additional probe measure, interrupting the readers with a tone and asking them if their mind was wandering or concentrated on the text at that moment. At the end of the session, both groups took a 20-question true/false test on what they had read.

So, what were the differences? Both the placebo group and the drinking group spend about the same amount of time reading, and scored roughly the same on the reading comprehension test. No significant differences in reading rates or immediate retention. And when the researchers compared the first, self-reported measure of mind wandering, the two groups were also “similar in the frequency with which they caught themselves zoning out.”

The big difference showed up when researchers compared the frequency of mind wandering as measured by the arbitrary prompts. In that case, the drinkers zoned out twice as often, but were less likely to catch themselves at it. What the drinkers appeared to be sacrificing was a significant degree of meta-awareness, the act of “thinking about thinking.”

So, when they got probed, what were the drinkers thinking about instead of War and Peace? According to the authors, “alcohol seemed to particularly increase distraction related to sensory states, such as hunger, thirst, and other consummatory motives.” One might be tempted to call them “mammalian motives,” in the sense that alcohol intoxication sometimes reduces drinkers to back-brain, lower-order, fight-or-flight responses not highly compatible with meta-cognition.

This is not exactly a groundbreaking study, it’s fair to say. But it does point up the fact that only a few ounces of alcohol can induce episodes of mind wandering which are not detected by the drinker—mini-blackouts, in a manner of speaking.

Although a reduction in working memory capacity is part of the answer, it is not the whole story. What else fuels this “alcohol myopia” is unclear, but the authors suggest that their findings represent the first practical demonstration that “alcohol disrupts individuals’ meta-awareness of the current contents of thought.” Or, as a heavy drinker might be prone to put it, “Now where was I?”

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