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The Weird Way Wine Boosts Brainpower

Trying to solve a tough problem? Pour yourself a drink and watch the ideas start flowing.

| March 12th, 2013
Thinkstock / NASA
The Weird Way Wine Boosts Brainpower

A glass of wine is a fine reward for finishing up an annoying project (or a relaxing way to avoid it)—but studies have found your brain may benefit more if you drink while you’re working.

MORE: Study Says It's OK to Drink While Pregnant 

A recent study from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that moderate intoxication can improve individuals’ ability to see the big picture (literally and figuratively). Researchers divided test subjects into two groups—one group stayed sober, while the other group drank vodka cranberries until reaching a level of moderate intoxication (that is, right around the legal BAC limit of .08). Then, both groups were given a series of tests in which they had to detect differences between two sets of similar images. The subjects in the intoxicated group found the changes fastest.

The results supported findings of an earlier study in which the same researchers observed that intoxication facilitates creative problem solving. While sober people likely relied on strategy to detect changes between pictures, the tipsy participants waited for changes to spontaneously “pop out” at them. “There are some tasks that we seem to do better on if we aren’t too focused on the solution,” explains Jennifer Wiley, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and senior author on the study. “Too much focus may cause us to miss small or remote ideas.”

QUIZ: Are You Naturally Lucky?

The mind-wandering effect of alcohol that is so dangerous if you get behind the wheel could be the key that unlocks the solution to a nagging conundrum. “The best tasks to try under the influence are the ones where you want a nice variety of ideas, including some unusual ones,” Wiley says. So if you need to figure out where to sit Aunt Ethel at your wedding reception, brainstorm ideas for a memo due at work by the end of the week or reorganize your basement storage, sipping a tipple may lead you to an elusive bright idea.

Don’t expect your boss to okay setting up a remote office at the corner bar. Follow-up tests found that when it came to tasks that required participants to rely on their working memory capacity, the intoxicated group did noticeably worse. Working memory involves reasoning and cognition, which are impaired when you’re three sheets to the wind. Therefore, it’s best to stay sober when it comes to, say, doing your taxes or updating your LinkedIn profile.

COLUMN: The Truth About Alcohol and Sleep

But when you have to think outside the box, the answer you're searching for might be waiting at the bottom of the bottle. Just make sure to revisit any work when you’re sober.

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