Blackout Drunk – The Science and The Reality
Few alcoholics and heavy drinkers have managed to escape the dreaded blackout. From the drunk’s perspective, things simply never happened. There’s missing time. He can’t remember what he said or did, or how he got to where he finally ends up lucid. Occasionally, there are short moments of recollection interspersed between the nothingness, but generally speaking, there are tremendous gaps in memory.
But what is really going on in the brain of someone who is blackout drunk? Do they actually know what they are doing at the time? Are they walking, talking zombies? Or are they functioning decently, only to forget the whole thing by morning?
So what is a blackout, exactly?
Being blackout drunk is actually a medical condition called transient amnesia. Being in a blackout does not make you unconscious. Indeed, being unconscious would make more sense in terms of what you remember the next day.
No, what you are experiencing is amnesia to some extent. Sometimes certain cues can jog some vague recollections, but the short-term memory of the brain is so impaired that not much can be pulled into the conscious. And actually, there are other things that can cause a person to experience a blackout besides alcohol. Some physical or psychological trauma is another possible culprit.
The Brain and The Science
Humans use working memory to take note of our position at the present – where we are, what we are doing, who is with us, etc. Most of working memory is processed in the pre-frontal lobe directly behind the forehead. Information is temporarily stored there for easy access. If the brain decides the information is important enough to be stored permanently in long-term memory, it goes to the hippocampus.
A blackout, regardless of the reason, is basically a failure of the memory storage process. Events occur, but the blackout drunk period is not accessible. But this raises another question – if you can’t remember it, have you really experienced it? The answer may be irrelevant, but one thing is for sure – the people around you experienced it.
Alcohol is a depressant, and nervous system depressants in general are known to cause problems with memory. Some drugs, including benzodiazepines like Xanax and Ativan, can cause this as well.
Who is most likely to get blackout drunk?
Of little surprise, the same people who get drunk at lower levels of alcohol consumption than others are the same ones more likely to blackout. For example, women weight less than men and have less body water to dilute the alcohol, so they may be more affected. Also, many smaller men might tend to blackout more than larger men. Some Asians carry a gene that renders liver enzymes less efficient at breaking down alcohol, so these persons are extra susceptible to all the effects of alcohol, including blackouts.
Is it especially dangerous to be blackout drunk?
Yes. Even though you are conscious, you are likely impaired in both cognitive ability and motor skills. And remember, impairment of short-term memory means that you might not even remember one minute to the next. That is, you could injure yourself and know it, and completely forget about it in a matter of minutes.
Also, the choices we make at this stage may lead us to situations that we really need to remember, such as casual sex.
If you or someone you know is an alcoholic, please seek help immediately.