A brand-new study by scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and drunk students. (They were aiming for real intoxication, giving students enough booze to achieve a blood alcohol level of 0.075.) Once the students achieved “peak intoxication” the scientists gave them a battery of word problems – they’re known as remote associate tests – that are often solved in a moment of insight. Here’s a sample problem. Your task is to find the one additional word that goes with the following triad of words:
Cracker Union Rabbit
In this case, the answer is “jack.” According to the data, drunk students solved more of these word problems in less time. They also were much more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight. And the differences were dramatic: The alcohol made subjects nearly 30 percent more likely to find the unexpected solution.
Once again, the explanation for this effect returns us to the benefits of not being able to pay attention. The stupor of alcohol, like the haze of the early morning, makes it harder for us to ignore those unlikely thoughts and remote associations that are such important elements of the imagination. So the next time you are in need of insight, avoid caffeine and concentration. Don’t chain yourself to your desk. Instead, set the alarm a few minutes early and wallow in your groggy thoughts. And if that doesn’t work, chug a beer.