College students who drink alcohol don’t typically intend to drink to the point of “blacking out,” and they also don’t fully grasp what kind of drinking is most likely to lead to blackouts, according to a new series of studies by researchers at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
“Studies like these, addressing attitudes toward blackout drinking as well as what students know and do not know about blackouts, give us clues about how we might intervene to reduce this high-risk outcome,” said Dr. Jennifer Merrill, an assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown who was involved in the studies.
“This work helps us to identify where there is room to correct any misconceptions students have about the causes and consequences of blackouts.”
Previous research has shown that between 30 and 50 percent of young adults who drink regularly report experiencing alcohol-related memory impairment within the past year, whether full “blackouts,” where they can’t remember anything for some period of time, or “brownouts,” episodes of on-and-off memory loss, where memories may be recovered with reminders.
“We don’t yet know what long-term effects having a blackout or repeated blackouts has on the brain,” said Dr. Kate Carey, a professor with the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown’s School of Public Health. “We do know that having alcohol-related memory impairment is associated with other negative consequences.”
These consequences can range from hangovers or missed classes to fights, overdoses, mental health problems or sexual assault.
Given the seriousness of those risks, Carey and her colleagues conducted a series of focus groups to better understand college students’ knowledge of what causes blackouts, understanding of the distinctions between blackouts and brownouts, and perspectives on the consequences of both.
Their findings are published in three journals: Psychology of Addictive Behaviors; Addictive Behaviors; and Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Each of the three studies was based on analyzing transcripts from a series of eight single-gender focus groups of college students who had reported a blackout in the previous six months.
The focus groups involved a total of 50 students, 28 women and 22 men, from four-year colleges and universities around Providence.
In the first paper, the researchers show that students were aware that drinking hard liquor, drinking large quantities of alcohol and drinking quickly increased the risk of blackouts.
However, many didn’t understand that biological factors such as biological sex and genetics play a role in the risk of blackouts, or that mixing alcohol use with other drugs could increase risk as well, said Carey.
“The kind of drinking that results in alcohol-related memory impairment is common, but it’s also not typically done with the intent of blacking out,” Carey said. “And those who regularly drink and report blackout experiences don’t have a full understanding of what causes them. The interesting thing is that regardless of how much you drink, there are ways to drink so that you don’t black out.”
Specifically, drinking in smaller quantities or pacing drinks across a longer period of time can prevent the rapid rise in blood alcohol concentration that is known to cause blackouts, she said.
The second paper analyzed the answers of students who were asked: “What is a person’s typical reaction when he/she blacks out?” and “Overall, what makes a blackout a negative, neutral or positive experience?”
Generally, students described blackouts negatively, using terms such as “embarrassing,” “annoying” and “scary.” But some described the experience as exciting.
Social factors — who they were with or whether their friends thought blackouts were common or acceptable — influenced their perspective on blackouts. The severity of the memory loss, and learning whether they did anything embarrassing during the blackout, also impacted their opinions, Carey said.
In the third paper, the researchers found that college students used the phrase “blackout drinking” hyperbolically to describe drinking very heavily, yet without the intent to lose memories. On the other hand, “a blackout” more precisely meant an episode with periods of as much as an hour of complete memory loss. The students called shorter periods of missing memory or fuzzy memories “brownouts,” Carey said.
The research team also conducted an online survey of 350 full-time college students from across the U.S. who reported lost memory after drinking in the past year.
The survey showed that students experienced brownouts more frequently than blackouts. Specifically, 49 percent of those surveyed had experienced both blackouts and brownouts in the past month, 32 percent had experienced only brownouts, 5 percent experienced only blackouts, and 14 percent hadn’t experienced any alcohol-related memory impairment in the past month.
The surveyed students also voiced less concern about brownout experiences compared to blackouts.
Carey hopes these new insights will help develop additional education modules for alcohol prevention programs that specifically address the risks of the high-volume, fast-paced drinking that is likely to lead to blackouts.
Source: Brown University