When I talk about blackouts I am not talking about falling unconscious after drinking, I am talking about periods of consciousness which the drinker has no memory of. Indeed the term ‘blackout’ usually has even further connotations than this. It is usually a period in which the drinker does things that seems completely out of character for them, things that they bitterly regret when they emerge from the blackout. This aspect, along with other aspects, can result in the problem drinker feeling like they have utterly lost control, that they are going mad or are becoming out and out schizophrenic. This adds to the general feeling that they are different to other people and that there is something inherently wrong with them. However, as with everything else involving alcohol and addiction, there is a fairly straightforward explanation for the phenomenon which is made up of the physiological and psychological impact of the drug. In fact the alcoholic blackout is made up of three elements: the immediate effect of the alcohol, the withdrawal from the alcohol, and the effect alcohol has on our memory. Let’s now consider each of these three elements, starting with memory.
The first point to make is that our knowledge of human memory is based on theories, it is not an exact science. We can study cause and effect and come up with theories to explain, but we cannot categorically state as fact the elements of it in the same way that we can state as fact the elements of a chemical reaction. Having said this, the most widely currently accepted theory is that human memory consists of two parts: the short term memory and the long term memory. Short term memory is what we use to retain information that we do not need to retain for ever, but that we need to retain to deal with the immediate situation we are in. For example if we are talking to someone we need to remember what they are saying and the course of the conversation so we can react and have a meaningful interaction with them, but we have no need (usually) to recall the detail of the conversation over the following years. If you think of all the conversations you’ve had over your life you probably won’t be able to recall the detail of even a small percentage of them, however you clearly don’t forget them immediately while they are unfolding otherwise you would be incapable of holding an intelligible conversation at all. There’s no agreed time frame for a short term memory but most theories place it somewhere between fifteen and thirty seconds.
Long term memory however contains those events that are more noteworthy and are therefore stored for longer. It is worth bearing in mind that it is thought that even long term memories pass firstly through the short term memory and from there into the long term memory.
The generally accepted theory on alcohol and memory is that alcohol can prevent memories from passing from the short term memory into the long term memory, and that this is caused not by the degree of drunkenness on any particular occasion, but the accumulation of drinking over time. So we do not have to be blind dunk to suffer from the interference with our memory, we just need to maintain a certain level of intoxication over a certain time period. However, and as with sleep, the actual science behind it is of less interest than the effect when seeking out a logical explanation for the alcohol induced blackout phenomenon. All we really need to know from this perspective is that the effect of drinking is such that we can suffer complete memory loss on occasions when we are, in fact, very far from fully intoxicated. This is the first of the three points we have to bear in mind.
The second point is the immediate effect of the alcohol, or the actual position we are in when we are within the blackout. As stated we do not need to be utterly intoxicated, but we do need a certain level of intoxication. This level is usually enough to rather heavily depress our inhibitions, and to mess around with our emotional state (see the Chapter in Alcohol Explained on ‘Alcohol’s Effect on Emotions’) but it is often (unfortunately) not enough for us to drop unconscious or to cease functioning entirely. In this state we all too often do things we would otherwise be too inhibited to do and to act on emotions that have run away with us that would otherwise have faded fairly quickly. We may find something so hilarious that we cannot conceive how anyone else could fail to find it funny, or we may become so despondent that we simply have to call an ex, or we become so angry we cannot but help act on this anger. So we act in this over emotional and uninhibited state and consequently do things that are frankly embarrassing and reprehensible. However because of the failure to transfer memories from the short term to the long term memory, we have absolutely no recollection of these events when we wake up the following day.
In fact this position is further exacerbated by the withdrawal from alcohol. As dealt with previously, when we wake up after a drink we do not return immediately to feeling normal, in fact we are more mentally frail, depressed and vulnerable due to the aftereffects of the drinking. So we are not just viewing our previous uninhibited, overly emotional actions from the point of view of normalcy, but we’ve actually gone even further the other way and are viewing them from an even more timid and nervous disposition. The difference between the two states is usually such that we cannot even begin to comprehend how we could have undertaken such and act, and as we have no memory of it we cannot even begin to understand our motivation. The upshot of this is that it really feels like the actions of two entirely different people.
The blackout is not something that everyone suffers from, however virtually every drinker who has ever taken a drink has done things they regret whilst drinking, or suffered from some form of memory loss, and the elements described here also explain why we do things while we are drinking that we later regret, and why we suffer from memory loss. Memory loss and doing things you later regret are often seen as signs of problem drinking, whereas they are in fact absolutely unavoidable consequences for anyone who drinks regularly. If you remove your inhibitions and let you emotions run riot, how can you possibly expect to avoid doing embarrassing and shameful things?