It has finally been proven what all young people have instinctively known – drinking makes you smarter. A pause here while I peek cautiously around my computer for the expected stoning.
It’s all a matter of amount, like so many things in life: water, money, acetaminophen (2 gets rid of your headache, a handful, your liver).
Alcohol is an interesting drug, and is best thought of as a drug. The first ounce is a stimulant in most people, but after that, it acts as a depressant. Given enough alcohol, the brain starts working badly, becomes sleepy, then comatose, then dead if you drink enough.
A study looked at problem-solving in individuals with blood alcohol of 0.07 percent or less; that’s a glass of wine or a beer. For background, 0.08 percent is the legal definition of “under the influence” if you are driving. Sensitive tests of coordination can detect performance deterioration in as little as 0.04 percent.
But this study was testing mental problem-solving, not driving skill. It found, much to everyone’s surprise, that a modest amount of alcohol helped. Bet that made a few scientists stop and scratch their heads. Kind of like the faster-than-light- neutrinos … which weren’t. Both run contrary to most of what we think we know.
This inspired a lot of intense, probably not alcohol enhanced, consideration of the way the mind works. The conventional theory of problem solving is reflected in every aspect of our society.
To be a better problem solver, you get some training in a particular area like medical school or engineering. You preload the brain with a lot of facts and conditioned pathways. You think about a problem hard.
The brain is wired to solve all types of problems in this way, and alcohol doesn’t help. But people, societies, and companies have all become more sophisticated. Those answers, that anyone with the proper training can come up with, simply aren’t good enough anymore. Companies have come to value “out-of-the-box” thinking.
This goes by many names, non-linear, right-brained or lateral thinking. The essence is using unrelated information to solve problems in a new and hopefully better way.
The theory to explain a possible benefit from a little alcohol suggests that our thoughts are less focused after one drink. We are less likely to use normal conditioned neuropathways, and more open to unique solutions. Stepping back, you notice more forests for the trees and all that. A low dose of alcohol can encourage non-linear thinking.
Do you need alcohol to be non-linear? Not really. We have many other, non-linear approaches. This is something we use every day. If I am really stuck, I will “sleep on it.” Almost like magic I wake up with the answer.
The notion – “I get my best ideas in the shower” – is another example of opening up our mind to non-linear thinking. Ever tried to look directly at a faint star and found it invisible until you looked away at another star that was close by?
We are built to solve problems in both linear and non-linear fashion. If you get stuck, look away, take a shower, sleep on it, or perhaps try a glass of wine or a pint.
It’s good to have options. Now for a nap.
As always, take care.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.