Alcohol use and memory loss — blackouts?
Originally Published: April 26, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 22, 2009
What exactly does "blacking out" from alcohol mean? Can people get so drunk that it is physiologically impossible for them to remember what happened the next day? Also, is it possible for someone to walk around, talk to people, etc., and then have no way of remembering those actions?
Yes, indeed. Blackouts, defined as periods of amnesia (memory loss), are caused when alcohol consumption levels prevent the formation of memories in the brain. These levels vary from person to person, and the time frame of these memory lapses is not always marked by visible altered states of consciousness. For example, you and your friends could go to a bar tonight, have some drinks, and talk about politics. But tomorrow, when your friends recall in detail the previous evening's discourse, you may not recall the actual conversation even though you were a full and competent participant. This point is important because blackouts are often confused with passing out, which does constitute a change in consciousness.
Blackouts are common among alcohol abusers and can be a warning sign to drinkers and their friends that alcohol-related problems exist. Blackouts are also considered an early high-risk indicator of alcoholism. For problem and healthy drinkers alike, blackouts are often troubling or traumatic when serious and typically unforgettable occurrences are impossible to remember, such as... I don't recall slapping her! You're kidding, I took my pants off and danced on the bar? Did I have sex with that guy last night? Or even, was he wearing a condom? It can be pretty sobering to realize that, in the end, we are responsible for our actions, whether we remember them or not. It's too bad when we forget, for life, really pleasurable things like a party, meeting new people, or intimate moments of sexual pleasure.
If you are concerned about your own blackouts, or the memory-challenging episodes of others, cutting back or setting limits on alcohol intake is one option. If the problem is chronic, and a symptom of more serious drinking or other drug use, professional support or assistance is the next step. If you are at Columbia, call Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) at x4-2878 to make an appointment with a therapist who specializes in these issues. Elsewhere, contact the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at (800) 729-6686 for free educational information and resources on alcohol-related health topics.