A new study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that alcohol consumption may impair one’s capacity to make decisions and be mindful of the future. The study concludes that alcohol intoxication at moderate levels can impair the ability of episodic foresight. This may have implications for understanding different maladaptive behaviors commonly linked to acute alcohol usage.
Episodic foresight is the ability to mentally project oneself into a hypothetical future scenario and imagine oneself experiencing it. It involves the ability to create a mental simulation of a future event, based on past experiences and current goals and desires, in order to plan for and achieve future goals.
Episodic foresight is essential for individuals making decisions that will benefit them in the future, helping to avoid potential issues and secure future rewards, which is essential for independent living. Unfortunately, alcohol intoxication can impair cognitive functions, including retrospective memory and executive functions, resulting in maladaptive behaviors.
Alcohol myopia theory postulates that alcohol’s social and anxiety-reducing effects stem from its narrowing of perceptual and cognitive function, possibly through decreased episodic foresight. Research indicates that intentional practice of episodic foresight could potentially have therapeutic benefits including decreasing alcohol cravings while diminishing our tendency to discount future rewards.
In their new study, Morgan Elliott and colleagues set out to explore the effects of sudden alcohol intoxication on this cognitive skill. The study recruited 124 healthy participants between the ages of 18 and 37 who consumed an average of 2 to 36 standard units per week. Participants were randomly divided into two groups using a double-blind independent group design: alcohol group (n=61 with 30 male participants) and placebo group (n=63 with 32 males).
The alcohol group received a dose of 0.6g per kg of body weight in 10 cups of 50mL portions containing vodka, tonic water, and lime cordial. Participants consumed one cup every three minutes until all 10 drinks had been consumed, with two additional sets of top-up drinks given approximately 80 minutes and 120 minutes into testing to maintain an even blood alcohol content level. On the other hand, placebo groups received 500mL divided into 10 cups containing only tonic water and lime cordial.
Participants in the experimental group maintained a state of intoxication while playing the Virtual Week-Foresight game to assess their ability to anticipate future events and plan appropriately. VW-Foresight is a board game-like activity where participants use a computer mouse to move a token around the board. Each circuit around the board represents one virtual day. Participants make decisions about daily activities and engage in episodic foresight tasks as they move around the board.
The findings suggested that drinking at moderate levels, slightly above Australia’s legal driving limit, led to less acquisition and usage of necessary items required to solve problems as well as less likelihood of using them later. Such impaired foresight may lead individuals to prioritize immediate needs over long-term goals resulting in risky sexual behavior, aggression or drunk driving.
Alcohol intake may result in decreased episodic foresight, possibly as the result of impaired retrospective memory. Executive function did not contribute to this impairment, and no gender differences in episodic foresight after moderate alcohol consumption were noted in this research study.
This study explored the significance of episodic foresight to effective decision-making and the potential effects of alcohol-induced impairment on inappropriate behaviors, while providing preliminary insights into secondary cognitive mechanisms which may contribute to its impairment. These results highlight how even moderate drinking can result in suboptimal decision-making, increased risk-taking behaviors, functional difficulties as well as various unforeseen outcomes that are well documented elsewhere.
The study, “Episodic foresight is impaired following acute alcohol intoxication“, was authored by Morgan Elliott, Gill Terrett, Valerie Curran, Peter G. Rendell, and Julie D Henry.