The conventional wisdom has long been that drinking is bad, or even disastrous, for your memory. But a new study by neurobiologist Hitoshi Morikawa at the University of Texas, Austin, suggests that alcohol may actually really help us retain certain types of drinking-related memories. Here's a brief guide to Morikawa's findings:
What ever happened to "drinking to forget"?
Alcohol does wreak havoc on your conscious memory, so don't down those shots if you want to "hold on to pieces of information like your colleague's name, or the definition of a word, or where you parked your car this morning," Morikawa says. But drinking seems to "actually increase our capacity to learn" at the subconscious level.
So what is it we are subconsciously learning?
Primarily that drinking is fun. And also that anything we do while drinking — chatting with friends, eating french fries, listening to music — is rewarding. Alcohol essentially hijacks your dopamine transmission, Morikawa says, and imprints on your subconscious mind the idea that drinking and drinking-related activities are worthwhile endeavors that should be repeated. "People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it's a learning transmitter," he says.
Is this study useful?
It bolsters the growing view of some neurobiologists that drug and alcohol addiction is tied to learning and memory. That could help us understand why moderate drinking helps patients with traumatic brain injuries, for example. Morikawa says he would like to use the study to develop an anti-addiction drug that goes after the synapses alcohol uses to condition the brain to drink more. In other words, such a drug "would completely erase the addiction from a person's subconscious memory," says Tiffany Kaiser at Daily Tech.
Isn't that a little Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
Yes. "We're talking about de-wiring things," Morikawa says. And that's "kind of scary because it has the potential to be a mind-controlling substance." But it's also essentially fighting fire with fire, he adds, since the goal "is to reverse the mind-controlling aspects of addictive drugs."