Here’s What Happens When You Black Out: ‘Transient Amnesia’ Blocks Short-Term Memory Formation

sobo brain

By John Ericson

Hyperbole in the 2010s comes in clinical terms: Today, we are paranoid about bills, addicted to espresso, and schizophrenic about life choices.

Usually, this usage is a sure way of telling that the person talking does not suffer from any of these afflictions. The hallmark of paranoia, after all, is a refusal to acknowledge that one is being, well, paranoid. But there is one instance that appears to be just as commonplace as the rhetoric would have you believe.

Blacking Out

People say they black out all the time: at parties, during arguments, while taking tests, and under distress in general. Some blame alcohol. Others claim to be overcome by something they cannot quite pin down. Either way, it raises the question: What really happens?

For your reference, here’s a picture of the human brain. We’ll be talking quite a bit about it, so make sure you familiarize yourself with it.

As you can see from all the arrows, Latin nomenclature, and tubular stuff, this organ is no picnic. Once this is clear, it should come as no surprise that any meaningful answer about this system requires a very precise question. In other words, we need to be perfectly clear about what we are asking.

Personally, I had to learn this the hard way: last week, I emailed a dozen neurologists asking them to define unconsciousness for me. While those who got back to me brimmed with enthusiasm about the topic, everyone seemed to tread lightly, citing a limited scientific consensus. Put simply, unconsciousness is the temporary or permanent absence of consciousness — and without a clear definition of consciousness, we can’t really talk about either in a meaningful way.

The Right Question

But that’s OK, because according to Dr. Ausim Azizi, a chair of neurology at Temple University School of Medicine, blacking out doesn’t necessarily involve loss of consciousness at all. Instead, black outs have more in common with a condition we’re much less inclined to throw around. And that is amnesia…





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