Study: Photos of alcohol can narrow attention

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) – Can you experience some of the effects of drinking alcohol without ever taking a swig?  New research from the University of Alabama points to “yes.”

We all know how alcohol can impact or “narrow” a person’s attention.  “This has been something that’s been found many years that is chemically induced,” explains researcher Dr. Philip Gable.  “When someone ingests alcohol, it causes someone to zero-in or focus very intently.  As an example, there are many problems with drunk driving, but if you’re really zeroed-in on something or too narrowed, you might be focused so intently on the speed limit and might miss the stop sign.”

That “narrowing” is something researchers have also been able to find in college students who simply looked at photos of alcoholic beverages, or alcohol cues.  “Those who drink more than other students tend to have more of this narrowing effect,” explains Gable.  “Remarkably, this narrowing that people have to alcohol actually predicts future behavior as well.  So the more zeroed-in or captured you are by these alcohol cues, the more it predicts future drinking.”

The research so far has primarily focused on the attentional narrowing.  Forty-two students volunteered to be hooked up to EEG machines that measure brain activity while they look at a slide show of images that included alcohol.  Gable says they noticed that the students’ focus narrowed on the images of alcohol, more so than on other neutral images.

“Whereas to the alcohol pictures, you are really focused and zeroed-in and you might miss something in your periphery,” says Gable.  “With the non-effective or non-alcoholic image, there’s this sort of broadening so your more interested in what’s going on in the periphery, and less focused intently on the object.”

Gable explains it like this: in an image featuring alcohol, most volunteers would not be able to comment on the color of the table cloth that the alcohol was on.  That can also carry over into more serious, missed observations.

“We miss, sort of negative consequences that might be occurring in the periphery, or you might forget goals like, studying for example, over the goal to drink or socialize.”

Next, researchers plan to use the data collected from the EEG machine to determine why this happens, neurologically.

“Maybe we can look at this as a mechanism that we can influence or intervene with,” Gable says.  “To maybe help reduce drinking behaviors for people who find it problematic.”

Copyright 2014 WIAT-TV CBS42

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