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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Did you know it's next to impossible to measure the cognitive impact of a hangover?


Yeah, think on that for a moment. 


In preparation for an upcoming Psychobabble episode I decided to do a bit of research into what impact the hangover has on performance. I mean, we all know what happens when we're drunk - it makes us super sexy, super smart and super confident. Also, due to these three factors, we make excellent decisions. 

But the next morning, in the throes of the hangover, these excellent decisions seem suspect. Was it really a sustained excercise in poor judgement? Or is the hangover merely darkening our outlook, recollection and judgement?

I certainly know which of those options I'd prefer to believe, no research required... 

Physiologically the hangover sucks. The most common symptoms include headaches and nausea, typically associated with dehydration. Infrequently, though, we push it a little too hard and it gets much worse

Sunday Morning. Source 

Another reason I wanted to look into this was a conversation I had the other night. A friend mentioned that she knew a guy who works best, most creatively, when he's hungover. I, being the bullshit psych student that I am, predicted in over-confident tones that it was probably because when you're hungover you likely lose some executive capacity. That is, you're less able to inhibit certain responses - so the ideas that flow a little more freely and the nature of these ideas is probably less critically examined by the self and as a result a greater diversity of 'formed' ideas is generated. Sounds pretty good, huh?

I was relieved when, a day or two later, I found a paper that proposed just such a mechanism. 


"...Therefore, executive function, or certainly higher cognitive functions,

should be considered as candidate functions to be affected by hangover."

- Stephens et al (2008).


The paper I'm citing here is actually a metareview of all studies that examined the cognitive impact of the hangover. Yet it seems we really don't know much about Hangovers.

First off, ethics committees suck. If you want to get people drunk in a lab, under full consent, you're only allowed to get them drunk up to a certain point. To be fair it's not entirely the ethics committee's fault. If you want to placebo control the study you can only get participants so drunk before they realize they've got the placebo. It's not easy to admit that I'd be suckered for placebo alcohol, but I'm willing to concede to what we know about placebo and I suspect it'd probably get me. But only up to a certain point, right? I know what 2, 4, 6 and >6 standard drinks feels like. I'd likely fall for 2 or 3 standards, maybe even 4... but probably no higher. The question now is - is this enough (for it to be properly placebo controlled) to induce a 'hangover' in the treatment condition? 

Further to that point, if you're going to administer the alcohol you have to do it in such a way that other cues do not influence one's perception of their inebriation. You can't just challenge participants to a Centurion and give one group heavies and the other group non-alcoholics. The standard protocol is to mix vodka (or sometime the spirit of one's choice) with a soft drink to a standardized level (g/kg) and hit them with it in one go. The placebo control is soft drink with the rim of the glass dipped in the spirit so it smells and tastes like alcohol, but with negligible content. 

Why bother with all this placebo control stuff? Well, since we've all experience hangover and frequently paired them with aversive stimuli (nausea, headaches, etc) we're very, very, likely to confound our responses on such tests with other learned predispositions. You want to measure reaction time independent of expectation effects... well, I'm hungover, of course I'm going to be slow...  This is why a control group is so important. We don't know if being hungover does make you slow independent of everything else.

Then there's 'Naturalistic' studies, where you inform people that you want to study them after a night of drinking. The problem here is that the researcher can't know how much they drunk, what they drunk, if they drank anything else (water, caffeine, etc), if they ate, when the started, when they stopped, how much sleep they had, who they hooked-up with, or how super-sexy they believed they became. Since scientists like to control these things, this is bad. The other - potentially worse - problem is that all participants know which condition they are in. They are either in the hangover group, or the non-hangover group. At this point we loop back to the whole expectations and biases thing.

Another problem is when does a hangover actually kick in, and when can you measure it. Stephens et al (2008) propose only that   a BAL must equal 0. If it is any higher than you're measuring the cognitive impact of inebriation, not hangoverination. Apparently - and distressingly - many studies neglect to measure this. 

Having said all this, here's what the data hint at:

Hangovers effect memory (Stephens et al, 2008)

As for my stab at executive function - too little is known (one study did look at it and no effect was observed). 

So this line of enquiry will not yield any interesting discussion on Psychobabble, but I did think it worthy of mentioning because it's a really tricky methodological problem and in an interesting way a banal problem (such as this) can really push the limits of the scientific method. 

Also, talking about alcohol and hangovers means I can post this video. No man can pull of a bow-tie like this guy.

ResearchBlogging.orgStephens, R., Ling, J., Heffernan, T., Heather, N., & Jones, K. (2008). Review * A review of the literature on the cognitive effects of alcohol hangover Alcohol and Alcoholism, 43 (2), 163-170 DOI: 10.1093/alcalc/agm160






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