Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been making headlines after admitting to using crack cocaine, stating that it happened "probably in one of my drunken stupors."
Note that he didn’t say he blacked out – an important distinction. According to neuroscientist Dr. Aaron White of the National Institutes of Health, there is a significant difference in the brain between blacking out while drinking and drinking to the point of a stupor.
A blackout is just a memory impairment. A blackout refers to your brain’s inability to create a record for events as they unfold. It has nothing to do with knowing right from wrong or being able to make good decisions or bad decisions – those are handled by other brain areas.
Though there is a distinction between blacking out and being in a drunken stupor -- generally described as being near unconscious from over consumption -- these two states do go hand-in-hand.
Often when someone drinks enough alcohol to blackout, the other parts of the brain that handle these other tasks are impaired as well. That’s why you don’t tend to hear stories of people waking up, not remembering what they did, and then finding out that they did something smart; they cleaned their room or balanced their checkbook. We tend to make bad decisions when we drink and so if you’re in a blackout the odds are good you’re going to make bad choices.
Each person has a different drinking profile based on a number of factors like genetics, gender (females have less of a certain stomach enzyme that helps process alcohol), physical makeup and drinking habits.
A person is more likely to black out before falling into a drunken stupor or passing out if he or she consumes a lot of alcohol in a short period of time – even if they aren't an alcoholic. The same amount of alcohol on the same person spread over a longer period of time might cause drunkenness, but not a blackout.
Ross Reynolds spoke with White on KUOW's The Record.
Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.