The Drunk and Sober Versions of You Have Different Memory Banks

a scuba diver under the water
Image by Heath Alseike / CC BY

“Things’ll fall together eventually,” I say. “Just gotta keep on… shit, how did you put it?”

He cocks his head in the way he does when he’s listening to the question but doesn’t know exactly what I’m asking him.

“I want to say ‘keep on grinding,'” I continue. “But I know you don’t like that expression.”

He’s not a big fan of using the word “grinding” to mean “working hard.” Part of it is because we both enjoy hard work and getting things done, and the expression has a connotation attached to it that hard work is unpleasant. Which isn’t true in our case, and even if it were, framing hard work as annoying and emphasizing that wouldn’t be a helpful or productive move anyway. It would be demotivating.

Besides that, he’s said that when people literally grind they’re sanding or chipping away at things. Destroying them. Where for work I mostly make stuff. So it’s kind of the opposite of what I do.

The last time we spoke he’d told me another word for working hard that he liked instead. One I liked a lot when he said it and made a mental note to use it. But now here I am drawing a blank on what exactly that was.

“Wish I could remember how you put it. What did you say?”

He shrugs. “I don’t remember. Wish I did.”

“Damn,” I say. “Well, maybe it’ll come to us later.”

We eat dinner. Hang out. Spend several hours together.

But it’s only after we’ve had a glass of red wine, and I start talking about work again that it slips out of his mouth. “That’s why it’s important to keep on churning.”

“Churning!” I say suddenly. “That’s what it was.”

He laughs. “You’re right.” Hard work, sure, but work that transforms things what’s already there. And can be pretty exciting as you watch things change shape. Take on a different form. Like churning butter.

“Ah,” I say. “Gotta love state-dependent memory. I bet we were drinking wine the first time you said it.”

State-Dependent Memory and Learning

State-dependent learning is a phenomenon that’s been found in a number of psychological studies. The basic premise is this: If you learn information in a certain state, you will recall it better at a later time when you are in a similar state.

Our experience with red wine is a pretty typical example. State-dependent memory definitely applies kicks in with altered states of consciousness due to substances. For example, they’ve found that if you study while drunk, you will do worse on a test that you take when you’re sober (and better if  you take that some test drunk). And they’ve also found if you study when sober, you’ll do worse on a test that you take when you’re drunk (and better if sober).

But it doesn’t just apply to substance use. In one classic study, Godden and Baddeley found that scuba divers who learned lists of words while under the water recalled them better when tested underwater than they did on dry land. And conversely, divers who learned lists on dry land recalled them better on dry land than when tested underwater.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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