Yes, alcohol disrupts the memory system. But, in very specific circumstances, it can actually help recall. This is the phenomenon known as state-specific recall. External context can help you recall a memory; you’re better able to recall it if you are in the same environment where the memory was acquired. But, and here’s the clever bit, this also applies to the internal context, or “state”, hence state-dependent recall. To put it simply, substances such as alcohol or stimulants or anything that alters brain activity bring about a specific neurological state. When the brain is suddenly having to deal with a disruptive substance washing around everywhere, this does not go unnoticed, any more than you wouldn’t notice that your bedroom was suddenly full of smoke.
This can also apply to mood: if you learn something while in a bad mood, you’re more likely to recall it later if you’re in a bad mood again. It is a massive oversimplification to describe moods and mood disorders as “chemical imbalances” in the brain (despite many who do just that), but the overall levels of chemical and electrochemical activity that result in and from a specific mood is something the brain can recognise, and does. Thus, the context inside your head is potentially just as useful as the one outside your head when it comes to triggering memories.
Alcohol does disrupt memories, but only after a certain point; it’s perfectly possible to have the pleasant buzz of a few beers or glasses of wine and still remember everything the next day. But if you were to be told some interesting gossip or useful information after a couple of glasses of wine, your brain would encode your slightly intoxicated state as part of the memory, so would be better able to retrieve this memory if you were to have another couple of glasses of wine (on a different night, not right after the first two). In this scenario, a glass of wine can indeed improve your memory.
Please don’t take this as a scientific endorsement for drinking heavily when studying for exams or tests. Turning up drunk for a test will be problematic enough to cancel out any minor memory advantages this provides you with, especially if it’s a driving test.
But there is still some hope for desperate students: caffeine affects the brain and produces a specific internal state that can help trigger memories, and a lot of students pull caffeine-fuelled all-nighters when cramming for exams. So if you attend the exams similarly stimulated by excessive caffeine, then it could well help with remembering some of the more important details from your notes.
- This is an edited extract from The Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett (£12.99, Guardian Faber). Buy a copy for £7.99 from bookshop.theguardian.com.