Alcohol Induced Blackouts and Confabulated Memory

Posted by: Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, Psy.D., ABPP

Alcohol Induced Blackouts, Memories, and Criminal Justice

Forensic Psychology and Legal Services, Jacksonville, Florida

Alcohol-induced blackouts and memory

Alcohol-induced blackouts are a common occurrence in the criminal justice system. The inability of a defendant to remember their actions while under the influence of alcohol poses a problem for the court.

Memory functioning is impacted by alchol in two ways. Short-term memory remains intact during an alcohol-induced blackout; therefore, an intoxicated person can still engage in behaviors, but these behaviors may not be transferred to long-term memory, leading to memory deficits and memory loss. Alcohol influences most stages of the memory process, but its primary effect appears to be on the transfer of information from short-term to long-term storage. Alcohol severely disrupts the ability of neurons to establish long-lasting, heightened responsiveness to signals from other cells, known as long-term potentiation (LTP). Alcohol impacts several neurotransmitters that play a role in memory functioning.

The hippocampus is primarily responsible for facilitating memory storage, and alcohol disrupts activity in this area. Alcohol-induced disruption of other brain structures involved in memory formation, storage, and retrieval may contribute to lapses in memory.

Alcohol-induced blackouts occur when a person is able to actively engage and respond to their environment, but the brain is not creating memories for the events. The two types of blackouts are En Block Blackouts and Fragmentary Blackouts.

In conclusion, alcohol-induced blackouts are the result of alcohol interfering with the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory, disrupting activity in the hippocampus, and impacting several neurotransmitters that play a role in memory functioning. Understanding how alcohol impacts memory can help the criminal justice system better understand the behaviors of defendants under the influence of alcohol.

What is confabulation and how is it related to blackouts?

The term “confabulation” frequently arises in discussions of alcohol-induced blackouts and memory impairment. Confabulation is a memory error characterized by the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world. When an individual is unable to recall events, their brain will attempt to fill in the gaps with information that seems plausible. The extent to which an individual can confabulate varies considerably.

.For instance, if someone was under the influence of alcohol and only remembers bits and pieces of their journey home with a friend, their brain may attempt to fill in the missing pieces of their memory with information from past experiences or expectations. They may assume, for example, that their friend drove them home via the same route they usually take. This fabricated memory may seem real to the individual.

Individuals can become increasingly confident in their confabulated memories, even though they may be entirely inaccurate or distorted. In the case of the Uber example, the individual’s brain might unconsciously draw on memories of previous Uber rides. This type of cofabulation is known as conflation. Conflation is when two memories or events that are related or not are remembered as one event.

It’s important to note that individuals who are genuinely confabulating are not lying. Lying requires a conscious and deliberate intent to deceive. In contrast, individuals who are confabulating believe the information they are providing, and have no intent to deceive.

However, it’s also possible for someone to pretend to be confabulating or to report memory gaps for secondary gain. Secondary gain refers to any advantage an individual may gain by reporting medical or psychological symptoms, such as an alcohol-induced blackout. Secondary gain is not unique to alcohol-induced blackouts and can occur in criminal and civil cases, as well as in everyday life. For example, someone might falsely claim to have the flu in order to take a day off work, or feign memory loss to avoid culpability in a criminal case.