Blank Tape: The Science Behind Alcohol Induced Blackouts

When I was a young kid VCR’s were the newest, coolest standard in technology. I remember thinking that you could tell a kid was rich if they had a Big Wheels car, and that they were really, really rich if they had one of those cars and a VCR.

Eventually my parents came upon some kind of windfall and we got one of our own. Then our neighbors brought their VCR over for us to borrow, along with a bunch of movies. It was quite the sight to see. There were cords everywhere – one VCR stacked on top of the next, packages of blank tapes, this bizarre recording machine built by my father, which he controlled with the carefully timed pressing of buttons. The setup was supposed to work like this: one VCR played the movie, the other one recorded it. All the blank tapes would soon be full of free movies.

My dad stayed up all night copying films, including E.T. I hated that movie, it scared the crap out of me, and I was absolutely horrified to think about my sister being able to watch it whenever she liked. So, when my dad took a quick break to the bathroom I walked to the VCR tower and pulled a few plugs, effectively disconnecting the communication between the two VCRs. When my dad came back he sat on the couch and watched the rest of E.T. convinced it was being recorded. From the outside, it was impossible to tell that the movie wasn’t being transferred. When my sister eventually sat down to watch it, the first bit of the movie was there, and then without notice, nothing. Complete black nothing.

Alcohol blackouts work exactly like that. The film cannot be played back because it was never recorded.

Blackouts are a simple phenomenon in many ways: if you get drunk enough, alcohol interferes with the creation of long-term memory. Short-term memory is like this first VCR, playing the movie. You may be able to engage in physically or emotionally complex actions, and your brain will use the information around you to continue functioning, but it simply will not convert the information into long-term memory. Long term memory is like the second VCR. The movie is playing on the screen, the record button is blinking, everything appears to be working just fine, but that last drink essentially disconnected the two VCRs.

One thing scientists do not understand is why some people experience blackouts and other people do not. There have been studies of all kinds, but they do not provide a simple answer. It is controversial to make the statement that Alaska Natives or Native Americans experience blackouts more than other people, but there is some evidence that that is the case. The only thing I can say is that I myself blackout completely when I get really drunk. Not every time, and I cannot say what causes it to happen and what prevents it. That is, of course, not a scientific study, just the unflattering truth. I don’t know if my ancestry or some other factor is to blame, but I must have played the locally popular drinking game upriver-downriver hundreds of times in the 90’s, and I can’t remember the end of one of those games to save my life. Which is why it was easy for me to understand that George and Eugene, both having drank in that fashion, had blacked out at points in the night.

I never questioned whether or not blackouts were scientifically proven because I didn’t need to – I know they are real. I grew up around people who experienced them. Family, friends, and myself. I was raised with that truth. But if it is the case that most people do not experience blackouts, it would explain why so many people do not believe that they happen, and I want to address that. I would also like to ask a favor of readers – if YOU have blacked out, comment about it, anonymously if you like. I think it is important for skeptics to understand what many of us know, which is that alcohol related blackouts happen. The scientific verdict came in a LONG time ago regarding alcohol induced blackouts – they are absolutely, completely, totally real.

So, why a post about blackouts on this blog? Because alcohol induced blackout is an important issue in the case of the Fairbanks Four.

Let me start be reiterating that, although George and Eugene both drank heavily the night of the murder, both WERE certain of their whereabouts at the time of 1:30am (read their timelines HERE and HERE).

NO ONE in this case was blacked out at the time of the murder. NO ONE in this case was unsure about where they were at the tie of the murder, and even though they were young, drunk, and terrified, correctly stated their whereabouts, which were verified with alibis, for that time frame. But when they were interrogated, the police did not have any idea what time the crime had taken place but appeared to be working on a theory that it had happened much later. So, even when Eugene and George eventually agree to the interrogator’s story, based on times alone these incriminating statements still would not be accurate. However, it is important to understand how alcohol related blackout effected the investigation.

Both George and Eugene had been drunk enough that they felt they could not be 100% sure of their every move that night. Both had experienced blackouts in the past, and were open to the possibility that they may have been somewhere that they didn’t remember. But they were interrogated by police officers who insisted that blackouts were fiction -“scientifically impossible” and that continuing to state that they were unsure where they had been, that there were blank spots, would result in the police “filling in the blanks with the worst thing.” (Read about their interrogations HERE and HERE).

While investigating and interrogating the Fairbanks Four Detective Aaron Ring took a stab at being a scientist and lectured in great detail about the science behind blackouts. According to Detective Ring, only “people with Alzheimer’s and old alcoholics” could have blackouts. While interrogating George, he said simply, “You can’t have a complete blackout.”

The officers then moved on to stating a long litany of made-up evidence. For hours and hours they told these intoxicated and terrified young men incredible lies. Among those lies were statements that there was scientific proof that they had been at the crime scene. That their friends said they were there. That people very close to them said they had committed this crime. So, ultimately, these two were left in a terrible predicament: the honest answer, that they could not be 100% sure of their movements, was recast by the interrogators to be an admission of the worst kind of guilt, and would not be accepted.

At the end of the day, their consumption of alcohol left them especially vulnerable to interrogation techniques that can produce false confessions from sober people with no questionable memory. The officers involved should have never used the interrogation techniques on people so young, intoxicated persons, or any person who admitted that their memory of a night was compromised. The specific interrogation technique, the Reid Model, is highly controversial, banned in many countries, and KNOWN to lead to false confessions, especially in young people. Given the severity of the interrogation and the circumstances, it is a wonder that only two of the four relented under it.

Below are some resources on the science behind alcohol induced blackouts for those who are interested in my sources or want to read about this subject on their own.

http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/186-196.htm

http://news.wustl.edu/news/Pages/747.aspx

http://addictionrecoverybasics.com/alcohol-blackout-types-of-alcoholic-blackouts-how-they-work-and-consequences/

Sites/ Studies Looking Specifically at Alcohol Related Amnesia in Native Americans/ Alaskans

http://www.wellbriety-nci.org/Publications/myth.htm

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/PublicHealth/research/centers/CAIANH/journal/Documents/Volume%204/4%283%29_Wolf_Commentary_on_Alcohol_Policy_new.pdf

http://www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/PublicHealth/research/centers/CAIANH/journal/Documents/Volume%202/2%283%29_Wolf_The_Barrow_Studies_new.pdf

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8 thoughts on “Blank Tape: The Science Behind Alcohol Induced Blackouts

  1. I blacked out plenty of times before, its true blackouts are real and they do happen. No matter how hard you try to remember what you did, the memory is not there…its like your dead when your blacked out.

  2. I too had experienced blackouts when I drank, in fact, it was the MAIN reason I am now a “recovered alcoholic”. I do not hide behind anonymity. I began drinking when I was 12 years old and did not quit until I was in my early 40’s, not continuously, I was able to work, and “take care” of my children, hah, that was a sad experience for my poor children! I “only” drank on the weekends or during holidays, but it was too much. My only regret is I did not realize how it affects the people around you who love you and whom you love, both family and friends. BLACKOUTS ARE REAL! Alcohol is a slow road to death, my prayer is that I never touch another drop and advise anyone in the “beginning stages” of drinking “socially”, to QUIT completely. There is no such thing as “social drinking”.

  3. Hello, I am currently 53 years old, and drank when I was younger, I had more blackouts in my teenage and twenties then I did in my thirties. I am not sure what cause it but when I came out of them I would wonder where am I, where am I going, or what was I doing?

  4. This injustices need to be corrected against these four young boys at the time, they became young men in jail, and that is so wrong, What a injustices ,we let go. We have to get these four young men out of jail, today.! Please This a Human Rights Issue, we have to GET TOGEATHER on this one and set them FREE. WE HAVE TO MAINTAIN A COURT SYSTEM THAT IS FAIR. AND THAT COURT SYSTEM IS NOT FAIR TO THE NATIVE PEOPLE OF ALASKA. iF THE COURT SYSTEM IS NOT FAIR THAN THE PEOPLE WHO ARE RESPONSIBLE ARE NOT READING THE 14 AMENDMENT. AND THEY THE ONES TO BE IN JAIL!!

  5. Pingback: In the Air – Alibis and Witnesses VIII | The Fairbanks Four

  6. I normally never black out and have a pretty high tolerance for alcohol. I’m a small guy, only 5 6 165 pounds. Normally I can pound drinks all night and not worry about it. One time I drank 11 shots of 151 in a row and blacked out. This is the only time it happened in my life and it was just like someone turned out the lights. Next thing I know I woke up feeling horrible and everyone was telling me a bunch of things I did. Not good. Lesson learned.

  7. I have had enough to drink until I blacked out, I have had enough to drink until I blacked out while partying with the Fairbanks 4. They never beat me, or sodomized me. We all watched each’s others back. We only had each other back then.. I pray the truth reveals itself, and soon

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