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Drinkers zone out — but may not know it

Even a modest amount of alcohol can make the mind prone to wandering, but drinkers may be slow to notice it, a new study suggests.
/ Source: Reuters

Even a modest amount of alcohol can make the mind prone to wandering, but drinkers may be slow to notice it, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that when they had a group of men read "War and Peace" after either an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink, those who'd imbibed were markedly more prone to zoning out while reading. They were also less likely than their sober counterparts to realize their minds had wandered far from Tolstoy.

While most people may not reach for "War and Peace" after a cocktail, the findings could have implications for behaviors more likely to go hand-in-hand with social drinking, according to the researchers.

Other tasks that require "sustained attention," such as driving a car, could be affected, explained lead researcher Dr. Michael A. Sayette, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

In addition, he told Reuters Health, the alcohol zone-out might hinder a person's ability to resist "impulses and temptations" — a task that often requires a great deal of mental effort. For instance, Sayette noted, studies suggest that when smokers are trying to quit, drinking alcohol makes them more vulnerable to relapse.

For their study, published in the journal Psychological Science, Sayette and his colleagues recruited 55 men who were social drinkers and had them slowly drink either a cocktail or a non-alcoholic beverage. The men then took on the task of reading "War and Peace" from a computer screen for 30 minutes.

The men were told to press a particular key any time they found themselves zoning out as they read. They were also prompted every few minutes with the message, "Were you zoning out?" This allowed the researchers to gauge how often the men's minds had wandered without their realizing it.

Overall, the study found, men in the alcohol group let their minds wander more than twice as often as their completely sober counterparts — spending about 25 percent of their reading time zoned out.

Yet despite having many more chances to catch themselves wandering, men in the alcohol group were actually less likely to do so.

Alcohol also seemed to affect the content of the men's mental distractions, the study found. Those in the alcohol group were more likely than their counterparts to say their zone-outs included thoughts of eating, drinking or smoking -- which, the researchers note, is consistent with studies showing that alcohol may boost cigarette cravings.