“Can drinking alcohol impair my ability to learn?”
—Taylor, Portland State University, Oregon

Yes, in ways both large and small. Are there students who drink from time to time and still manage to do well enough in school? Of course. But alcohol can mess up your learning experience. Here are several ways that this can happen:

Reduced sleep quality and impaired memory formation

Learning has several components. In order to form short-term memories, you have to be concentrating when exposed to new ideas. While you sleep, those short-term memories are consolidated into long-term memories. Research has shown a linear relationship between hours of sleep and GPA—in other words, the more you sleep, the better you do academically. Not sleeping enough, or getting poor-quality sleep, hinders long-term memory formation and thus the learning process. Drinking often affects decision making, leading you to stay up later than you’d planned, and the sleep that you get when intoxicated is relatively poor quality, which means you’re less likely to turn those short-term memories into the long-term memories you need for the test.

Reduced control of emotions (e.g., higher risk of depression)

There are many reasons not to drink. Maybe you’re sick or taking medication. Maybe you have a big test the next day, or want to do well at tryouts. Maybe you just don’t want to. At the top of the list of reasons not to drink is depression and anxiety. If you are unhappy, don’t drink. Very few things in this world are 100 percent true, but this is one of them: Drinking will worsen your experience of depression. There are much better medicines than alcohol. Ask for help at your school counseling center.

Relationship complications causing upset and distraction from learning

Drinking amplifies most emotions. This can lead to euphoria, arousal, the belief that you’re an amazing dancer, and so on. Drinking can also lead to drama, and sometimes physical violence. Personally, I find my life complicated enough without alcohol ramping things up.

Getting in trouble

Getting in trouble for underage possession, intoxication, vandalism, or anything else does not provide any short-term benefit to your educational experience, and can even lead to suspension or expulsion from school.

Addiction

For some students, the stakes are much higher than getting a B instead of the A you were capable of. About 10–15 percent of people are at risk for addiction. Their brains are wired in such a way that they struggle to control their relationship with alcohol and/or other substances. Unless they get help, and that help is effective, they are at high risk for suffering serious consequences, such as damaged relationships, financial difficulties, and the inability to complete their schooling on schedule. Sometimes it takes a serious consequence, like being kicked out of school, to help them come to terms with their condition. But ideally the problem would be identified and resolved before the consequences became much worse.

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