graphics-cocktails-168456Now that school is in session, youngsters aren’t the only ones settling into an educational mode. Adult education is revving up as the cocktail party season takes off.

It’s been said a stranger can learn more about you in an hour at a cocktail party than your spouse has learned in a lifetime. Catching up with gossip and learning where friends went on vacation are standard educational opportunities at social gatherings, but according to University of California-San Francisco research, high decibel noise and distractions at parties provide the perfect training ground for people to learn to hyper-focus on a single stream of sound.

Studies show that the auditory cortex behind the ear edits sounds so “it’s as if only one person is speaking;” it’s called “the cocktail-party effect,” researcher Edward Chang said. Leave it to science to take the fun out of a good party. I recently engaged in intensive hyper-focus practice at a couple of the season’s first cocktail parties, but my auditory cortex must be out of whack, so I just smiled and nodded, as if I could actually hear what people were saying.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines cocktail as “an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients,” but the origin of the word is unknown. One theory claims the name came from a drink called “coquetel” served to French soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. Another story harks back to a time before the invention of little paper umbrellas, when a tavern owner decorated drinks with rooster tail feathers.

Mrs. Julius S. Walsh Jr. hosted the first cocktail party in her St. Louis home in 1917. The hour-long do for 50 guests began at noon and was followed by lunch. Two years later, the popularity of mixed drinks soared during Prohibition when alcoholic beverages were illegal. Speakeasies mixed cocktails of poor quality alcohol with sweet flavorings, such as fruit juices and honey to disguise the bad taste and make it easier to down quickly in the event of a raid.

An early lesson learned when imbibing in cocktails was reported in 1803, in The Farmer’s Cabinet. The New Hampshire publication was the first to print the word “cocktail.” It referred to a fellow with a hangover who “drank a glass of cocktail—excellent for the head…” Indeed, the consequences of the morning after could be a valuable educational experience. As entertainer Dean Martin said, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. They wake up in the morning and that’s the best they’re going to feel all day.”