Blackout Drunk: The Science Behind Going Dark

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Experiencing a blackout can be a horrifying or numbing event that can not only destroy relationships and one’s reputation but also one’s self-integrity, depending on what the blacked-out person does.

Sadly, professor of psychiatry Marc Schuckit at the University of California San Diego said, “blackouts are unfortunately often considered to be a funny thing as opposed to dangerous,” especially to underage drinkers and students in college, where binge drinking and beer pong is all the rage.

In reality, a blackout can be a scary thing and even life-threatening at times.

From parties and arguments to dealing with distress, these occurrences happen quite a lot in society, but what exactly is a blackout via alcohol abuse? Is it a brain cell killer?

The person may feel like they are unconscious, but is one really mentally unconscious? Why does a person in this state still have the ability to function to a degree? What can happen during a blackout?

The brain is such a complex mechanism that it’s not even close to being completely understood by scientists so it’s hard to say what exactly are the effects of alcohol on the brain when one blacks out. Despite scientific limitations, there are still answers to the question behind what exactly an alcohol-induced blackout is.

What is a Blackout?

Surprisingly, blackouts happen all the time. From intensified arguments and bouts of anger to parties involving binge drinking, the feeling of being overcome by something that leads to one going dark can be an overwhelming experience. When it comes to an alcohol-induced blackout, it still is a mystery as to what exactly happens, but there are some answers.

A blackout means not remembering what one did the night, or day, before and doing things he or she would not normally do.

From the moment alcohol hits a person’s stomach, it immediately goes into the bloodstream and affects the GABA and glutamate neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals the brain cells use to send messages to one another. They not only influence emotions and thought processes, but one’s movement and behavior as well. Alcohol binds to the GABA receptors when consumed and it intensifies the message the brain cell receives via the neurotransmitter.

Dr. Ausim Azizi, the chair of neurology at Temple University School of Medicine, said when someone blacks out, it does not necessarily mean that this person lost consciousness.

“[An] alcoholic blackout is different from loss of consciousness,” said Azizi. “Technically, a drunk individual may lose or may not lose consciousness for a brief period of time, but they do not form memories for long periods of time during inebriation.”

In fact, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) states that only long-term memory is disturbed in a blackout, but not short-term memory. This explains why a person mid-blackout can still hold conversations from moment to moment and be active to an extent while having the usual disturbances of emotional moderations and locomotion. However, since long-term memory is experiencing a shutdown, a person can hold a conversation in this state, but they may repeat themselves or forget what they were talking about a half an hour before.

In other words, a blackout is temporary alcohol-induced amnesia.

Sometimes in this state, a person may experience flickers of memories after a blackout, but when someone is completely wasted on alcohol, the hippocampus—the part of the brain where long-term memory lives—is so affected that there could not be a flicker in sight when the lights turn back on. Brain cells are not killed in the face of an alcohol-induced blackout; only the neurotransmitters are disturbed and weakened.

A blackout can not only happen by just consuming an excess amount of alcohol, but also by mixing alcohol with pills (e.g. benzodiazepines, painkillers) and illicit date rape drugs (e.g. Rohypnol, GHB, etc.). Such drunken escapades could actually increase the chances of a blackout, whether done on purpose, without the knowledge of the individual getting intoxicatedslipping a drug into someone’s drinkor without the individual paying attention to the amount of drugs and alcohol he or she is consuming in one sitting.

Unfortunately, this is also how rape can occur.

If I Black Out, Am I an Alcoholic?

When it comes to having high blood alcohol levels, blacking out is a sure-fire sign that the drunk individual has consumed too much alcohol. Some people get drunk faster than the average person while others are genetically predisposed to being more sensitive to alcohol, which can increase the chances and number of blackouts in that individual. Some people even have both drinking characteristics.

Yes, alcohol abuse is tied to a blackout, but it does not necessarily guarantee that if someone blacks out that they are an alcoholic. In fact, you don’t even have to experience a blackout in your lifetime to be considered an alcoholic, but more times than not, an alcoholic tends to have blacked out quite a number of times in their active addiction.

A person is considered an alcoholic when he or she has “a distinct physical desire to consume alcohol beyond their capacity to control it, regardless of all rules of common sense.” Alcoholism is a chronic disease that does not have a cure, but there are plenty of solutions out there in order to live a happy sober life.

Some signs and symptoms of alcoholism—which also follow along with the lines of alcohol use disorder—are as follows:

  • Having an inability to limit the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Having a desire to cut down and having unsuccessful attempts to stop or slow down
  • Having strong urges to drink alcohol
  • Failing to perform obligations at work, school, or home—or not doing so to one’s ultimate potential—because of alcohol use
  • Continuing to drink despite physical, social, or mental ailments
  • Drinking alcohol in unsafe places (e.g. driving, swimming, etc.)
  • Gaining a tolerance for alcohol and needing more to get an effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms—nausea, sweating, insomnia, shaking—when not drinking and needing to drink in order to avoid such symptoms

The Horror of Going Dark

I had my first blackout about two weeks before I turned 12 years old,” said Sarah Hepola to the The New York Times. “I had been hanging out with my cousin, who was 16, and somebody handed me a beer. I drank the beer and I just kept going. I had liked the taste of beer from the first time I ever sipped it.”

In Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Hepola recalled her numerous blacked out escapades that led up to her entering recovery and starting a new way of life that did not involve forgetting chunks of her life at a time.

For Hepola, alcohol was intertwined into her dating life, intimacy, going out with friends in the daytime, and, well, everything. “I have a line in the book where I say, I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care, and I woke up a person that cared enormously.”

When it comes to alcohol use disorder, natural human emotions and tendencies are repressed through the use of alcohol, whether done to the person’s span of awareness or not.

Furthermore, alcoholics like Hepola have experienced more blackouts than not that left her engaging in sexual, illegal, and other activities that if sober, she most likely would not have normally done. This, in turn, not only ruined relationships that she had with friends and peers but also with herself. 

Hepola would engage in such activities as skipping meals, which increased her chances of having a blackout–and she had plenty. In addition, since this writer is a woman, she is actually more likely to get drunk faster and experience a blackout because women are smaller in frame than men and tend to metabolize their alcohol faster.

The autopilot of a blacked out state can lead someone to some extremely grave consequences such as that of 32-year-old Higinio Salgado who, in April 2013, faced charges of murder for beating his boss to death in an alcohol-induced blackout. According to NBC News, Salgado not only killed someone in the midst of a blackout but that night he did so by inflicting 17 to 21 blunt wounds to his boss’s skull by slamming his head on the pavement.

With a blood-alcohol content (BAC) between 0.22 and 0.24 at the time of the incident, Salgado’s level of intoxication was well above the legal driving limit, which is a BAC of 0.08. 

Even though the last horror story is a bit extreme, it just goes to show how far an alcohol-induced blackout may or may not take a person to.

Need Help?

Alcohol and substance abuse is not an easy disease to overcome alone. Experts at Pathway to Hope have specialized in alcohol and substance abuse treatment and are ready to help you, or a loved one, with his or her struggle with addiction. Our focus on our clients ensures that their needs are addressed on the first call.

For help, call our addiction specialists who are ready 24-7 at (844) 557-8575 for more information.  

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