What exactly does it mean to blackout? It seems that definition takes on a different connotation depending on who we are talking about. For the deadbeat dad or homeless man on the corner, blacking out is understood in negative terms, wherein a person consumes too much alcohol in a bout of binge drinking, and as a result, suffers from memory loss and reduced cognition.

However, when we think of blacking out in “normal” social circles, most especially among college gatherings, we dismiss any real threat with a tone of jocularity. But this is no joke. Whether it’s happening to an over-eager fraternity brother or a feckless father, blacking out has serious medical implications.

What Causes Blackouts When Drinking?

Why does alcohol make you forget? Blacking out is different than unconsciousness. A person who has blacked out may continue to drink and engage with others. Their behavior may become sloppy, and they may be more inclined to take risks, but they can still function.

During bouts of excessive drinking, the brain cells located within the hippocampus stop functioning, and that means new, long-term memories go unprocessed. But, not every episode is the same. There are two types of blackouts:

  • En Bloc: Complete Blackout

Information is still stored in the short-term, and this allows a person to continue carrying on with normal activities. However, this information is not transferred into long-term memory. It is lost and can never be recalled.

  • Fragmentary-Memory Loss: Brownout

Short-term to long-term transfer is only partially impaired. With some effort, a person may be able to recall the events from the previous day/night.

why does alcohol make you forget

Who Is at Risk?

Some people are more prone to blackouts. It is estimated that 40% of those who engage in heavy drinking are predisposed to experiencing a blackout. It is also reported that women are more likely to experience alcohol-induced amnesia. Simple biology tells us that women are physically less capable to metabolize alcohol than men.

Signs and Symptoms

Many people who are experiencing a blackout will continue acting somewhat normal, which makes recognizing signs and symptoms a little difficult. Here is what to look for:

  • Repetitive and slurred speech
  • Lack of attention
  • Forgetfulness
  • Paranoia over one’s thoughts and feelings
  • Participation in risky behaviors
  • Cannot hold a conversation
  • Refusing to drink water or insistence to keep drinking alcohol

When Things Get Dangerous

The real danger occurs if a person is alone when they are blacked out. A person under this state of intoxication is at risk to:

  • Fall asleep in a compromising position, where they are susceptible to choke on their own vomit
  • Fall and hit their head
  • Suffer from alcohol poisoning

It is also vital to note that habitual, excessive drinking leads to a higher level of alcohol tolerance. In effect, a blackout will eventually occur at a dangerously high BAC, putting a person in greater jeopardy to experience the aforementioned risks.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Excessive drinking, or Alcohol Use Disorder, can lead to brain and organ damage. This is not necessarily the case with blackouts. In other words, a person will not suffer brain damage from alcohol-induced insomnia. Instead, through repeated blackouts, a person will start to deteriorate because they are drinking too much…

Safety and Consensual Sex

There are a lot of risks associated with blacking out — many of which involve decisions that are made in an extreme state of inebriation. Of course, this often intersects with questions regarding safe sex and consent.

Approaching this topic with the delicate tone it deserves, we remind our readers that a person who is visibly intoxicated cannot consent to sex. It is always better to air on the side of caution.

Regardless of what causes alcohol blackouts, over-consumption and delayed cognitive functions are dangerous to mental and physical health. Blacking out, however, is not the means to or justification for unsafe or non-consensual sex.

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