I love a good novel that is so compelling that I can’t put it down. The problem is that I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. on a work day in order to finish it. I read a New York Times best seller and USA Today Book of the Year, “The Girl on the Train.” It is a dark, psychological thriller in which the main character experiences alcohol amnesia, also known as blackouts.
Rachel would do anything for a drink and she has a history of drunken blackouts. She can’t recall her behavior and has difficulty separating fact from fiction. She learned that when in a state that we call “blackout” a person cannot form new long term memories. In the book, she cannot recall how she behaved, or why she has injuries to her body.
So what is a blackout? In order to function normally, we need to have a firm handle on the context of our lives. We do this by using our memory. It tells us where we are, where we’ve been, what we were going to do, and why we were going to do it. Blacking out is a momentary shutdown of a brain process. Excess alcohol can serve as a roadblock to memory. The brain receptors that create memories in the hippocampus shut down. The brain is working but that period of time is not recorded in memory.
Depending on how severely these receptors are disrupted, a blackout can be either partial or complete. There may be “blackouts” or “brownouts.” People who have brownouts can usually remember events once they are reminded of them. Total blackouts impair the ability to create new memories and are therefore inaccessible.
Mark Rose, psychologist and addiction researcher, says that it’s more about how quickly you drink than how much you drink. “For example, a person who slams three drinks in a row is more likely to have a blackout than somebody who acquires twice their blood alcohol concentration over a longer time.” And you can appear to be only slightly impaired while having a blackout. “Since alcohol affects our cognitive functions first, it’s possible that your total BAC (blood alcohol concentration) rose quickly enough to trigger the blackout response before hitting your motor functions” according to Rose.
Does blacking out mean you are an alcoholic? Not necessarily, but blackouts should not be taken lightly. Whether daily or periodically, it is caused by a sudden spike in blood alcohol content. Social binge drinkers are just as likely to have blackouts as people who drink heavily on a daily basis. The impact of alcohol on the brain varies from person to person. Some people are more sensitive than others to memory impairment. There is some research that indicates that people are more prone to blackouts if they have had a prior blackout.
Either way, you should monitor your drinking. In addition to impairing balance and coordination as well as decision making, alcohol can impair memory after just one or two drinks. As the amount of alcohol increases, the degree of memory impairment worsens.
Don’t be Rachel. You don’t want to be involved in a crime and have no recollection of your whereabouts or actions. While alcohol amnesia makes for a good thriller, it does not make for a stable life. Be careful out there.