Drinking to forget: why blackouts should be avoided and not celebrated


Most people are familiar with the term ‘blackout’ when used to describe memory loss following the ingestion of an excessive amount of alcohol, usually over a fairly short period of time. The drinker fails to remember conversation or actions that occurred while they were intoxicated, even when reminded by other people. Alcohol induced blackouts affect the functioning of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a significant role in the formation, storage and creation of meaning in memories.

More specifically, alcohol impedes the ability of information to transfer from short-term memory to long-term storage, which results in the impairment of memory creation. Also, the exact ability to recall memories after a blackout can vary. Two types of alcohol induced blackouts have been identified, en bloc or total and fragmented or partial memory lapses. Someone who experiences an en bloc blackout is unable to recall any information from a specific period of time. Total blackouts typically occur when a person has higher blood alcohol content (BAC). Fragmented blackouts are more common, occur at lower BACs and may allow for some amount of memory recall.

Blackouts are different from passing out which is marked by a visible change in consciousness, a person stops functioning and appears to be asleep. Unlike passing out, a person experiencing a blackout may appear to be functioning normally. Because they are able to use working and short-term memory to carry on conversations and engage in complex behaviors, it can be difficult to identify who might be experiencing a blackout. The information gathered during blackout activities however, is not stored in long-term memory and retrieval of memories can be limited or lost.

The risk of blacking out due to alcohol use varies from person to person. While common among those who misuse and abuse alcohol, blackouts are also experienced by social drinkers. Blacking out can be a warning sign to a drinker and their friends that alcohol related problems exist. Due to physiological differences, women are more vulnerable to blackouts than men, even if they are consuming alcohol at lower rates.

It’s no secret that judgment, decision making and interpretation of social signals are often impaired when using alcohol. This is the case even if an intoxicated person seems to be fully aware and competent.

“Some people think that blackouts, very bad hangovers and outrageous behavior at parties are very funny,” says Marc A, Schuckit, distinguished professor of psychiatry at the University Of California, San Diego, “This does not represent ‘fun.’ People don’t understand how dangerous blackouts are. In fact, people have oodles of misconceptions about drinking. Blackouts occur when a person’s BAC is likely significantly above what is considered ‘legal intoxication.’ Someone who has had a blackout cannot remember part of their drinking episode. As you can imagine, blackouts are likely to occur when the drinker is vulnerable to a range of additional dangerous consequences. Women might have unprotected sex, place themselves in a situation where they can be raped, or not be fully capable of protecting themselves. Men can get into fights, use very bad judgment regarding another person and are often the driver when BACs associated with blackouts can lead to a car accident. Blackouts are very dangerous for both men and women.”

Drinking culture needs to start realizing that getting blackout drunk is just bad policy. To continue to suggest that this type of behavior is fine to endure in social gatherings is not only illogical but also dangerous. Research in the last decade alone has shown how dangerous excessive drinking can be and how long term effects can linger long after last call.

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