Alcohol-induced blackouts – how can they possibly not know what they did?
How many times have you found yourself uttering incredulous gasps, “What do you mean you don’t remember?” or engaging in an argument with someone you care about because of something they said or did while they were drunk? Have you ever had them just stare at you, stone faced, as if to challenge your recollection and/or flip it around to somehow being “your fault,” something you’d simply dreamed up or were blowing all out of proportion?
Surprisingly, perhaps, your loved one might incapable of remembering their behaviors while intoxicated – even if they were fully “there,” (meaning not passed out but still standing, talking, doing ‘stuff’). This is because they’ve likely experienced an alcohol-induced blackout.
Aaron M. White, Ph.D, wrote in his publication, “What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts and the Brain,” published on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s website, “Alcohol interferes with the ability to form new long-term memories…. Large amounts of alcohol, particularly if consumed rapidly, can produce partial (fragmentary) or complete (en bloc) blackouts. Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers – including college drinkers — than previously assumed, and have been found to encompass events ranging from conversations to intercourse.” [emphasis added]
People who experience “fragmentary blackouts” while intoxicated often don’t remember all of what they said or did until they are reminded of their behaviors. People who experience “en bloc” blackouts are unable to recall any details whatsoever – even if prodded and taken through a sequence of events, blow-by-blow, they just don’t remember.
So how is it they have enough mental capability to talk or drive or get into a fight or vandalize a building or have unprotected sex but then not remember it the next day?
Several factors contribute to blackouts, but two of the key contributors are gulping drinks and drinking on an empty stomach. Each of these contributes to a rapid rise in BAC (blood alcohol content), and it’s the rapid rise in BAC that gets in the way of the brain’s ability “to transfer information from short-term to long-term storage.” According to extensive research on this phenomenon, the brain can capture information in short-term memory while intoxicated (at least for a few seconds, anyway), which is why the person can carry on a conversation or drive (albeit erratically], but the information relevant to these events does not transfer to long-term memory storage.
Blackouts Are Not to Be Excused
Having said all this, please know that I’m not trying to excuse a person’s drinking behaviors by labeling it a blackout, as in, “Oh well, they can’t remember, so it’s not their fault.” Absolutely not! In fact, blackouts are a prime example of the drinking behaviors that cause secondhand drinking (the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others).
Rather, I’m sharing this information because understanding alcohol-induced blackouts may help you avoid the useless arguments about what a person does or doesn’t remember, and it may help the person whose drinking resulted in an alcohol-induced blackout accept that, in fact, “I really could have done that!”
Lastly, this information points to the importance of avoiding binge drinking (in order to avoid a rapid rise in BAC). Binge drinking is defined as 4 or more standard drinks for women and 5 or more standard drinks for men.
Check out my article, “Understand How the Body Processes Alcohol, Reduce Secondhand Drinking,” and visit NIAAA’s website, Rethinking Drinking, for more on drinking patterns, standard drinks, standard drinks/cocktail or container, and tips for cutting down should you be experiencing blackouts.
To read Aaron M. White, Ph.D.’s article, “What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain,” click here.