“I Can’t Remember Anything”: How Alcohol Causes Blackouts

“I Can’t Remember Anything”: How Alcohol Causes Blackouts

In 2018, Forbes Magazine explained that unlike passed out drunkenness, blackouts maintain consciousness but cause a person to experience amnesia for some events – or all events – of their drinking episode. Drinking too much and too fast can cause a blackout and, while it’s a concerning subject, it’s a common occurrence – especially amongst young adults. If blackouts occur frequently, it’s a major warning sign of alcoholism – but unfortunately, it’s considered such a norm that most people overlook their experiences and chalk it up to “just having fun” or “not a big deal”. Jean, a person recovering from alcoholism, shared her story with blackouts via Very Well Mind, a website that publishes information on a variety of subjects related to health and wellbeing. She stated, “…I tried to blame everyone and everything I knew for my drinking; the death of my child, the ex-husbands, etc. Everyone was responsible for my drinking except me. The blackouts were, in a way, a blessing. I don’t want to remember some of those times.”

When blackouts occur, it can be the most nerve-wracking moment to hear from others about what we said or did while drinking. Addiction recovery is about understanding not only the dangerous effects that it can cause to our body and to those around us, but also understanding the mechanisms of how addiction works and how it effects the brain.

How Blackouts Occur

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that alcohol interferes with our ability to form new long-term memories; when we drink a lot of alcohol and at a rapid pace, it goes through a three-step process that Dr. Aaron White, a researcher from Duke University explained several years ago:

Step 1: Sensory Memory – the information comes in, and our senses are stimulated

Step 2: Short Term Memory – the senses that we’ve taken in have become encoded and transferred into short term memory through playback

Step 3: Long-Term Memory – short term memory becomes stored into long-term memory typically by through strong retrievals of the information stored in short-term memory and through transfer of the information remembered; however, alcohol interferes with this process of retrieval and, when it’s so severe that a blackout occurs, individuals are unable to retrieve the memories altogether

A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health emphasizes that the acute effects that alcohol has on the memory may result in alterations to the hippocampus, which is a key region for storing, processing and retrieving memories.

The Aftermath of Blackouts: It’s More Than a Hangover

Blackouts may seem to be minor inconveniences when you wake up the next morning wondering what happened the night before, but research is showing that it can hold negative consequences in other areas of life – especially for young adults in college (a population where this occurs most often). A 2016 study published in the journal Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research assessed 2,140 respondents whether or not they had experienced a blackout within the past 6 months. Researchers found that of these, 20% of young people stated they had experienced a blackout – and these were more prevalent amongst females who lived in college dorms. In sum, the researchers discovered a number of other areas of life that were negatively impacted by blackouts:

·    Missed class or work

·    Getting behind in school or work projects

·    Discovering that a person did or said something that later came to regret

·    Greater arguments with friends

·    Overdose

·    Hangovers

·    Increased likelihood of damaging property

·    Heightened risk of getting hurt

·    Legal trouble

When blackouts occur, we’re more likely to engage in risky behavior and put ourselves into more dangerous situations because we’re unable to think critically about the decisions we’re making from the effects of alcohol.

Jennifer Merrill, a research science and assistant professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, told U.S. News in 2018 that there are 2 types of blackouts: “en bloc” and “fragmentary” blackouts: “En bloc” blackouts: these types of blackouts can last for hours, and when these occur, people may not be able to remember large chunks of time. With these types of blackouts, a person may be able to recall what they initially were doing towards the beginning of their drinking episode but may be unable to recall what happened as the alcohol became digested in their body.

Fragmentary blackouts: these blackouts are often known as “brownouts” or “grayouts”, and this is because a person is able to recall certain “spots” of events.

During either of these types of blackouts, a person may become sloppy, may be unable to speak intelligibly, and may otherwise seem fine – even though there is significant impairment.

When Help Is Needed

A one-time occurrence may not spark major concern for treatment, but if blackouts are occurring often, or if a person is beginning to favor drinking over hobbies, work, family responsibilities and more, help needs to be sought. Blackouts can become a major sign of alcoholism if they occur often – don’t wait any longer to begin your journey towards healing and restoration.

The mission of The Beach House is to provide success in the recovery process and elevate the standard of comprehensive addiction treatment. Located right on the coast of Malibu, California, expert clinical care and a holistic view of the recovery process is provided to ensure Best-in-Class treatment tailored to the needs of each client. If you’re ready to start your recovery journey today, call us at 310-924-0780.

Saving Lives; Healing Families.



Kimberly James

I am the founder and owner of The Beach House Treatment Center, The White House, Indigo Ranch, Sweetwater Mesa and Beach House Center for Wellness, all in Malibu, California.