Memory and the Morning After

hangoverSomething about New Year’s Day that makes many psychologists feel obliged to have an alcohol-related post. Perhaps it’s because the subject is topical, and so the post is more likely to be read, or maybe it’s just that psychologists themselves are experiencing that heavy-headed feeling and are looking for a reason to rationalise their own self-indulgence.  Who knows!  Oh well, if you can’t beat them…

Some readers will undoubtedly be experiencing one or two hazy memories today.  The “did I really do that” effect or the “what happened after 1am” phenomenon, perhaps?  By far the most common case of alcohol amnesia is the inability to accurately recall someone’s face, apparently. Ever woke up with someone’s phone number – maybe someone you seem to recollect being quite “hot” at the time it was written – but find yourself now unable to remember anything more that the fact that (s)he had very red hair and was dressed in black?  More frequent an occurrence than we might think!

Turns out there’s a very good cognitive explanation for this sudden facial amnesia, according to a recent paper by Harvey and Tomlinson in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.  In an interesting series of experiments involving student volunteers – who proved surprisingly willing to indulge themselves with alcohol – the authors found that something strange happens to the way we process and store information about others as intoxication takes hold.  Specifically, whereas the brain normally processes information about other people in a very holistic way, identifying defining facial feature or mannerisms, for instance, as well as more external details such as the size of a person’s ears or the colour of their hair, it appears that alcohol intoxication diverts attention to the latter characteristics only.  Put another way, the more we’ve had to drink, the more likely it is that we will ignore harder-to-process information like the colour of someone’s eyes or the length or their nose, our lazy brains instead simply referencing them by the colour and length of their hair (or indeed its absence!).  The result – we remember the shape of the head and its framing by the hair, but very little else.

So there we are… a nice straightforward explanation for often-temporary facial recall problems.  There’s a serious side to this, of course – Harvey and Tomlinson’s findings have important implications for eye-witness testimony when the victim or witness to a crime are under the influence of alcohol.  But for this New Year’s Day post, it perhaps also explains why those of you who are single (or maybe not!) are unable to quite remember why that guy/girl you apparently spent so much time talking to you last night seemed to be the one of your dreams!  Never mind, better luck next (or I guess this) year…

Categories: Aberrance, Cognition