“Blacking out” after drinking alcohol is not the same as “passing out” because, although the brain isn’t recording what you’re doing, it’s still alert enough to keep letting you do it.
And, yes, this provides script-writers with the ammunition for unwanted tattoos, missing teeth and a tiger in the bathroom – but in reality alcohol-induced amnesia can lead to dangerous situations, risky behaviour and be a serious indicator of an addiction.
As much as blacking out is associated with drinking a large amount of alcohol, it’s also related to the speed at which the alcohol is absorbed because it’s the rapid rise in blood alcohol concentration which shuts down neurotransmitters in parts of the brain.
Specifically, the brain’s glutamate receptors (which code and store short-term memories before sending them into long-term memory storage) are most affected meaning none of your experiences ever get turned into long-term memories.
The loss of memory doesn’t have to be wholesale – fragmentary amnesia is also a symptom.
Adolescent and young adult brains are most susceptible to alcohol-induced amnesia because they are still developing, and women are more susceptible than men because of body weight and a lower level of enzymes which metabolise alcohol.
Blacking out has more important risks than simply the embarrassment of your actions when under the influence.
Unsafe activities – such as sex, wandering off and passing out in public – can create physical harm, but you’re also far more likely to end up with alcohol poisoning, and to develop long-term brain damage which could affect learning, memory, spatial awareness and decision-making.
And, although black-outs are seen as being part and parcel of social drinking in New Zealand, they are also associated with the development of alcohol abuse and dependence.
As well as alcohol, blackouts can be associated with the use of drugs such as LSD, marijuana and rohypnol as well as prescription medicines such as Valium. Because of this, it’s important to look at the underlying reasons behind the use of alcohol.
In the same way that purely social drinkers may wake with a hangover once in a while, it is perfectly possible for an occasional drinker to suffer a black-out brought on by a high blood alcohol concentration. But the frequency of those hangovers and black-outs can point towards addiction and dependency, which bring a raft of implications surrounding mental health.
Addiction is often used as a way to deal with stress or mask mental health problems and addictive behaviour leads to physical dependence and issues surrounding relationships, employment and social situations.