It’s happened to the best of us. You start out the night with the best of intentions. Just gonna have a few drinks with your buds, maybe sing some karaoke, tell some jokes, and take ‘er easy. Next thing you know you wake up fully dressed on the couch, nothing but crumpled ones in your wallet and a hazy recollection of belting out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” to a roomful of strangers. It’s the dreaded alcohol blackout.
Turns out a significant percentage of us young collegiates have experienced at least one blackout. A study done at Duke University found that 40 percent of college students have blacked out at least once in the last year. But it is my experience that most people have absolutely no idea how or why it happens, other than alcohol is involved.
So I’m going to use my sage wisdom and infinite knowledge on all things drug and alcohol related to clear the waters.
Turns out there are two types of blackouts. The first are called en bloc blackouts. This is when you have absolutely no idea what happened during the blackout, no matter how many times your buds try and remind you that you did indeed pee in a soda machine. The weird thing is that during this kind of blackout, people can make short term memories of around two minutes, so they can be holding conversations, playing pool, and seemingly making sense, but are not going to be retaining any of it.
The second type of blackout is called fragmentary. Sometimes I hear people refer to these as “grey outs.” This is where you don’t remember something on your own accord, but when the fact that you called your History TA "hot lips" to his face comes up, it all comes rushing back. These are more common.
So how exactly does a blackout happen? Let's think of our brains as an egg. First you have the shell, which in this case is your skull. Then there is the white part, which represents the outside of your brain, which controls stuff like motor skills, impulse control, etc. Then buried deep inside where things are safe and protected we have the yolk. For the brain analogy this represents really important stuff like breathing, keeping your heart beating, etc. Also located in there is a little node called the hippocampus. This part of your brain makes memories and is where the blackouts happen.
Contrary to popular belief, when you blackout you don’t just forget everything that happened to you; you never stored it in the first place. By drinking alcohol too fast or too much you actually prevent your brain from making any new long-term memories. This is why no matter how many times you get reminded of what was going down, you will never remember.
Another common misconception is that blackouts happen from simply drinking too much. A study was done where two groups of people were given identical amounts of alcohol, the first were told to drink it in an hour, and the second were told to drink it in three hours. The one-hour group blacked out, and the three-hour group didn’t. This seems to show that blackouts are linked to a rapid increase in your blood alcohol content (BAC), read: drinking too fast.
Basically things like beer bonging, taking mad shots, and chugging beers is a pretty good ticket to blackout town. And if our memories serve (pun!) from past Weekly Buzz columns a rapid increase in BAC levels is also a great way to get alcohol poisoning.
A lot of sketchy things can happen during blackouts. You’ve got your garden variety embarrassments like making an ass out of yourself, confessing secret crushes, and generally stupid behaviors. Then you get into some more serious risks. Sexual assault is way more likely during a blackout and increases the risk for STIs, people do risky things such as driving or fighting, and the likelihood that you are going to do something completely regrettable or get arrested are also increased.
Blacking out frequently can also be a sign there might be some problematic drinking habits going on, and if this is happening to you and you’ve got some concerns, feel free to hit me up and we can chat.
So I know that sometimes things get out of hand, but downshift on the speed you are drinking and spare yourself some hard-core embarrassment or worse.
Stay classy Western.