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Why You Can’t Remember What Happens When You Drink Too Much

Alcohol is a sedative that slows nearly all functions of the brain, including the part that forms and recalls memories. This area, called the hippocampus, is involved in all three kinds of memory formation:

  • Process memory (immediately formed and used during basic tasks and conversation)
  • Short term memory (memories lasting a few minutes, some of which are later moved to long-term memory)
  • Long term memory (any memories from more than a few minutes earlier)

Although the exact way the brain forms and recalls memories remains a mystery to scientists, the effects of certain experiences such as alcohol and drug abuse and traumatic brain injury are well documented. It is clear, for instance, that in some people the rapid intake of alcohol can cause two types of memory loss, or blackouts:

  • Fragmentary blackouts in which a person struggles to remember certain events that happened while they were intoxicated, but can once they are reminded
  • En bloc blackouts in which a person has complete memory loss and can’t recall events even when prompted or shown photographs

The formation of process memories is not impacted by intoxication. This is why a blacked-out person can carry on a conversation as long as it doesn’t involve remembering things that happened more than a few minutes prior. Alcohol seems to affect the ability of the brain to move memories of one type, into another level of storage. A person with fragmentary memory loss may have done something dangerous or embarrassing due to the effect alcohol has on impulse control and rational decision making, but their brain never moves that memory from short term to long term. Once they are reminded about what they did, that memory returns and is filed in the long term memory area. When a drinker experiences en bloc blackouts their brain fails to file any short term or long term memory of what they did.

Why Do Some People Experience Blackouts and Others Do Not?

People respond differently to alcohol as it relates to blackouts. It is believed that some people have a biological predisposition toward blackouts. This may be the result of purely hereditary factors or may be caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. Blackouts are also much more likely to occur when a person becomes intoxicated very quickly. There is something about rapid intoxication that greatly increases the likelihood of memory loss.

How Dangerous are Alcohol-Induced Blackouts?

While recent studies have refuted the older idea that blackouts are a symptom of alcohol addiction, they are still extremely dangerous. Blackouts are definitely a symptom of binge drinking, and binge drinking often leads to alcoholism. But beyond the development of alcohol addiction over time, the following are immediate risks associated with alcohol-induced blackouts:

  • No memory of risky sexual behavior that can cause pregnancy or disease
  • Some people drive while blacked out, which can lead to their own death or the injury or death of others
  • The likelihood of engaging in illegal behavior increases due to the loss of inhibition and self-control
  • Drinkers with short-term memory loss may overdose due to the inability to remember how much they have consumed

Help for Alcohol Problems 24 Hours a Day

One thing is certain, if you have experienced memory loss due to drinking you are at risk in several ways. Our toll-free helpline is open all day and night and our counselors can answer any questions you have about alcohol addiction and treatment. Don’t let alcohol destroy your life. Call for information and help today.

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