What Happens When You Black Out? You Become Another Person

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Talking to Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What happens when you black out? What are the stages of a blackout? What are its consequences?

When a person drinks an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time, the hippocampus in the brain is affected. The hippocampus is responsible for memory, which is why excessive drinking often leads to a state of blackout. Blackout refers to a state in which some or all of your memories are lost. Learn what happens when you black out.

This Is What Happens When You Black Out

The first stage of a blackout:

The hippocampus starts to be affected when the blood-alcohol level reaches approximately 0.08. The National Institute of Health’s leading blackout expert, Aaron White, says that there is no traceable logic to what gets remembered and what doesn’t when a drinker reaches the early state of blackout. For example, it is totally possible to forget being raped but remember getting in a taxi to go home.  This is what happens when you black out.

Total blackout: 

At a blood-alcohol level of approximately 0.15, the hippocampus shuts down entirely. At that point, all memories disappear completely and there is nothing to recall. Even in this state of total blackout, when the hippocampus is entirely shut down, it is possible for the drinker to continue to function like a “normal” drunk person. In fact, it can be impossible to tell when someone else has reached the point of blackout. This is what happens when you black out from drinking.

Example of What Happens When You Black Out from Drinking

Want to really know the startling extent of what happens when you black out? Alcohol researcher Donald Goodwin once gave ten men from St. Louis a bottle of bourbon in an effort to study the blackout state. After letting them drink for four straight hours, Goodwin suggested that the men might be hungry. He handed each man a frying pan, covered with a lid. 

When the men took the lid off the pan, there were three dead mice inside. Goodwin thought that would be a highly memorable, even traumatic, experience. But the bourbon drinkers had completely forgotten the event within 30 minutes, and they didn’t regain the memory the next morning. Disturbingly, this is what happens when you black out.

Blackouts and Sexual Assault 

In a state of blackout, all of the strategies people typically use to interact with strangers are dull—most notably the memory. Memory is usually the first line of defense when talking to a stranger:

  • You talk to someone at a party for 30 minutes. Then you consider what the person said and did in order to make sense of that person. (This is already problematic because assuming transparency is often a mistake.)
  • You make a choice about that person, such as whether or not you are willing to give that person your number or go home with him. 

But if you can’t remember your interactions with a stranger, then you might make your choice very differently. This may be what happens when you black out:

  • You talk to someone at a party for 30 minutes who doesn’t realize that you’re in a state of blackout. 
  • Maybe that person tries to touch you, but you stiffen up and reject the touch. 
  • Ten minutes later, that person comes back and tries to touch you again. Normally, you would immediately stiffen up. But the second time, because you’ve forgotten that this person already made you uncomfortable once, you react slightly differently. 
  • The stranger thinks that this different reaction is an indication that you are welcoming his touch the second time around. The stranger assumes you are transparent, when in reality you are simply not making choices the way you normally would. And if the stranger is drunk, too, his own perception of the interaction might be equally affected. 

Showing respect to another person requires managing your own desires with the desires of the other person. But in the blackout state, myopia transforms your brain so that you can only see your desires—the other person’s desires become crowded out. Essentially, it is impossible to be yourself in a social interaction when you are blackout drunk. 

Are Women More Likely to Black Out?

Women are at a much greater risk for blackouts, for physiological reasons. For a woman of average weight, for example, eight beers over four hours would put her at a blood-alcohol level of 0.173. She would be blacked out. But a man of average weight could drink the same amount and have a significantly lower blood-alcohol level of 0.15. 

Other factors that increase the likelihood of blackouts among women:

  • Women are more likely to drink wine and liquor, which raise blood-alcohol levels faster than beer.
  • Women have lower levels of body water, which results in a higher blood-alcohol content.
  • Women are more likely to skip meals while drinking than men are. 

When a young woman is blacked out, she is particularly vulnerable. It is important to let young women know that they don’t need to drink as much as a man does, and that this is what happens when you black out. And it’s equally important to empower women to know that they drastically increase the chances of being taken advantage of when they are unable to be responsible for their own decision-making. Of course, sexual assault is always the predator’s fault. Teaching women these principles is an effort to prevent more of them from becoming victims—never to blame the victim. 

Men are vulnerable when blacked out, too. It is important to teach young men that when they reach the myopic state, terrible things can happen. We need to teach young men that binge-drinking is not a harmless social activity—it drastically increases the odds of committing a violent or sexual crime. Of course, alcohol does not excuse the predator. Teaching men these principles is an effort to prevent more perpetrators of sexual assault.

What Happens When You Black Out? You Become Another Person

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  • Why we don't understand strangers
  • How to talk to strangers in a cautious way so you don't get fooled
  • How Hitler deceived so many world leaders

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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