Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Drink, Drink, Drink...Blackout!

MarieSager's picture

Hell Week at Bryn Mawr means different things to different people, but one key activity is intricately linked to the week: drinking. While participating in Hell Week, one sees a number of students experience alcohol related “injuries,” particularly the phenomenon known as black-outs. Indeed, after-party breakfasts (or should I say lunches?) are often filled with conversations centering around events that the previously drunk person cannot recall and remember. However, black-outs are not isolated to the Bryn Mawr campus. They occur in colleges worldwide and to individuals of all ages who engage with alcohol. Hence, in relation to neurobiology, but also in relation to general background and health information, the mental and physical processes behind black-out impairments and overall alcohol usage is interesting and important to examine and comprehend.

The information on how alcohol affects the brain is plentiful. Beginning in elementary school, many students learn the effects of alcohol. “Alcohol is a depressant,” they are told, and as a depressant, it slows down one’s central nervous system. Writes Eric Chudler, “Alcohol is a very small molecule and is soluble in "lipid" and water solutions. Because of these properties, alcohol gets into the bloodstream very easily and also crosses the blood brain barrier” (3). Indeed, alcohol produces various neurochemical effects: it increases the turnover of norepinephrine and dopamine, decreases the transmission in acetylcholine systems, increases the transmission in GABA systems, and increases the production of beta-endorphin in the hypothalamus. More specifically, according to the article “Neurobiology Added to Social, Moral Debate on Teen Drinking,” drinking may make the brain less receptive to the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA works to produces feelings of calmness and sleepiness. Therefore, when people, young people especially, consume alcohol, they become less sensitive to GABA. This may explain why younger people are able to stay awake and conscious longer than older people who drink the same amount.

Still, although much is known on the overall effects of alcohol, information on how blackout episodes affect the brain is just beginning to forcefully emerge. Studies done on blackouts provide further insight into the disruptive cognitive actions that occur when an individual overindulges in alcohol consumption. Indeed, blackouts are an extremely common occurrence for those who take part in drinking. Aaron White provides a definition of a blackout writing, “They represent episodes of amnesia, during which subjects are capable of participating even in salient, emotionally charged events—as well as more mundane events—that they later cannot remember. Like milder alcohol–induced memory impairments, these periods of amnesia are primarily “anterograde,” meaning that alcohol impairs the ability to form new memories while the person is intoxicated, but does not typically erase memories formed before intoxication”(1). Additionally, Jeff Benson speaks on two different types of blackouts- en bloc and fragments (2). Specifically, blackouts that occur en bloc have a beginning and an end; they contain “lost time,” and can be recalled later as events in and of themselves. For example, a person experiencing an en bloc blackout may recall their night in pieces- they may remember partaking in a conversation, and within this conversation, they may remember a block of time gone missing, hence the blackout. In addition, “People experiencing an en bloc blackout are unable to recall any details whatsoever from events that occurred while they were intoxicated, despite all efforts by

the drinkers or others to cue recall” (1). However, a person may also have a fragment blackout, in which their memory lapses are unaware to them until a person reports them. More specifically, “fragmentary blackouts involve partial blocking of memory formation for events that occurred while the person was intoxicated…they often become aware that they are missing pieces of events only after being reminded that the events occurred” (1).

Certain conditions make blackouts more likely. One is age. States White, “There is no doubt about it now: there are long-term cognitive consequences to excessive drinking of alcohol in adolescence” (4). Indeed, in an experiment done on rats, researchers discovered that alcohol suppresses the action of chemical receptors in the hippocampus of young rats, impairing the development of new memories. Drinking affected the learning ability of young rats far more than it impaired the cognitive function of older rats. This research corresponds with the studies done on humans. Indeed, the younger one is, the more likely they are to experience a blackout. Likewise, Benson notes that binge drinking, extended drinking over long periods of time, drinking while fatigued, and drinking on an empty stomach are all factors that contribute to blackouts.

Altogether, the risks of blackouts are real and scary. Experiencing blackouts, and their accompanying neurobiological effects, are a warning sign to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Whether or not you participate in the fun of Hell Week at Bryn Mawr or engage in drinking for various recreational purposes, this information on blackouts is too important to forget.















2 Black Outs's picture

I've had 2 black outs in the

I've had 2 black outs in the last 6 months...One in March and one this past weekend...on both occasions I was drinking with people I did not know well in cities I was new to (my family moved to a different city at the beginning of the year and now I've moved out of the country for college). I read that unfamiliar environment may also cause your alcohol tolerance to drop due to conditioned tolerance. I believe it because i know how much I drank this weekend and know for a fact I've drank way more in the past without blackout. It's very scary thinking I was in a strange town walking around the city semi-conscious. My iphone screen is shattered badly and I have no idea how it happened. Friends in my residence helped me remember somethings but I have a feeling I insulted someone about race and I'm not even racist. I also lost a bit of money and I remember paying for a drink but can't remember receiving it from the barmaid let alone drinking it. I've never had a problem with alcohol and have never consumed more than 6 days in one month. It is a very confusing time for me.

bonjour's picture

blackouts are a sign of a

blackouts are a sign of a very good night! i'v only had one major blackout and the consequences were quite hilarious

Anonymous's picture


I obviously had a black out also or I wouldnt have ran across your post..Yes black outs are real. It just happened a week ago..I went out meet some people. I bought myself a shot and a beer then I got one each again this probably happened within and hour and have or so. Then I remember this guy bought me a double shot and that is the last thing I remember until the next afternoon. I woke up to having clothes on that werent mine, missing some jewelry and these God awful bruises on my right leg. Well its been a week and the bruises are still there the on on my upper inner thigh is over 16 inches wide and wraps around to the front of my leg but anyway...I have tried but still can not remember a thing that happened what I did or said or anything. I live in a small town so I could go find I guess but I am kind of afraid because I dont know how I behaved while I was there...shit I dont even know how i got home..if those were your friends who said you used a black out as an excuse then well thats on them and I feel bad if they hurt your feelings..I am with you I dont want anything else to drink for a while. If and when I do I will pace myself I dont ever ever want to wake up and not know what the heck i did for the last 12 hours because I havent a clue it was soooo scary and unsettling...Good Luck to you...:)

Serendip Visitor's picture


This was very helpful to me...I'm 19 years old now but when I had barly tured 18 I partisipated in drinking very large amounts of alcohol,I had drank large quantities b4 w/ friend and believed i had not been very drunk until days later when friends I don't remember seeing that day had said they hungout w/ me and told me things I couldn't recall at all(falling out of the same chair over and over again)but this time I was w/ ppl I didn't know...the alcohol made me vonerable I was takin advantage of by an older man I could only recall a few things big/huge chuncks were missing...I told ppl this and they said blackouts dont really happen and that was just my excuse so I could b a slut...They don't know how that night has effected me but I havn't drank since...I'm too scared to do that I have learned from my mistake and will never let something like that happen to me ever again.

Paul Grobstein's picture

blackouts: another cable phenomenon?

See Alzheimer's Disease: A Neural Pathway Disjunction, and comments after. Maybe its not just amnesia, but actual disconnection of the I-function? How could one decide?