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

“If recreational drugs were tools, alcohol would be a sledgehammer,” said Dr. Aaron M. White, Ph.D., assistant research professor, Department of Psychiatry, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Alcohol affects and generally impairs nearly all cognitive functioning, including the brain’s ability to store information and form new memories.

Alcohol and Memory Formation

In 1968 researchers Atkinson and Shiffrin proposed a model for the process by which the brain stores information and forms new memories. According to this model, referred to as the modal model of memory, memory formation takes place in three stages. As the brain receives sensory information it is:

  1. Stored briefly in sensory memory
  2. Processed to short-term memory
  3. Established in long-term memory

Studies conducted on alcohol’s effect on memory consistently have shown that alcohol impairs the brain’s ability to transfer information from short- to long-term memory. Intoxicated test subjects could retain information presented to them after intoxication occurred for a short period of time, often from twenty minutes to a half an hour, but were unable to recall that same information after longer periods of time, and especially after the intoxication had worn off.

Women are at Higher Risk than Men for Experiencing Blackouts

Blackouts occur more frequently than has often been assumed, and are not limited to habitual heavy drinkers or those who are physically dependent on alcohol. Social drinkers also experience blackouts on a fairly regular basis. A survey conducted by Dr. White and colleagues found that, of the 772 college students surveyed, 51% of those who consumed alcohol reported having experienced a blackout at some point in their lives, and 40% had experienced a blackout in the year prior to the survey. 9.4% of those who reported drinking in the two weeks prior to the survey experienced a blackout during that time.

The respondents in the survey also reported having learned after the fact of participating in a wide range of dangerous behaviors that they could not recall, including driving, vandalism, and unprotected sex.

A very significant finding of the survey was that, although the men who participated reported drinking more frequently and more heavily, both men and women reported equal numbers of blackouts, suggesting that women are more susceptible than men to alcohol-induced blackouts. This is likely due to the different ways that men and women metabolize alcohol. Women are also likely to be more susceptible to milder forms of alcohol-induced memory impairments.

Questions About Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain?

Alcohol is a powerful drug that has serious detrimental effects on the brain and its functions. Long-term, heavy consumption of alcohol will greatly increase the destructive effects. If you have any questions about alcohol and its effects on the brain, or if you would like help finding treatment for alcoholism or problem drinking, call our toll-free helpline; counselors are available 24 hours a day.

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