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Drunken Blackouts Measured in Miles

Nothing says ‘I got fucking drunk’ like waking up in another city

People do a lot of weird shit they don’t remember when they’re blackout drunk. Maybe you whip up a plate of spaghetti bolognese and cradle it under the covers, design a really cool plane, or buy a hot tub online.

But there’s a particular subset of blackout drunks who manage to end up in entirely different cities or countries with no idea how they got there. University of Florida student — and student body president, it should be noted — William Seth Meyers, 22, is one such case. Meyers got so drunk last week he ended up in Key West for spring break—eight hours and 500 miles from his school in Gainesville.

While there, Meyers tried to mount some Harley Davidson motorcycles but couldn’t quite pull it off, so he pushed them over, the Miami Herald reported. The arresting officer wrote that Meyers was “was so intoxicated that he did not even recall coming down to Key West for spring break vacation.” Meyers told the officer that he just wanted to go home.

Meyers’ is not the only tale of a blackout drunk hitting the road and ending up somewhere else. “Got completely destroyed on an impromptu pub crawl, woke up in another country,” someone wrote on Reddit in a collection of craziest blackout drunk experiences. “Apparently the ferry from Stockholm to Turku is perfectly fine with borderline comatose passengers booking tickets and boarding.”

Another similar Reddit thread asking commenters the weirdest scenes they’ve woken up to includes the tale of a guy who started drinking in Japan but woke up in Korea. And actor Anthony Hopkins has said he quit drinking during Christmas of 1975 after he woke up in Arizona with no idea how he got there (he had come from London.)

Such tales raise some questions: How the hell drunk do you have to be to get eight hours down the road, or all the way across the ocean, and not remember a flash of it? And how could anyone that drunk manage to pull off the logistics required for travel? Weirdly, it’s these two competing things — a really drunk brain that still wants to do its job, and booze that just won’t let it — at play.

First, getting drunk messes with your brain not by killing its cells, as previously believed, but by fucking with its ability to form new memories. Blackouts are a particularly stellar example of this, as they occur when your brain simply has too much booze to make the short-term memories turn into long-term ones. That’s why later on you can remember some shit, like I played Thin Lizzy on the jukebox!, but not other shit, like how the hell did I end up at a Denny’s?

Correction: You can remember some shit if you’re having one kind of blackout, called a fragmentary blackout. It’s also called a brownout, because it’s the gentler, chiller form of full-on blacking out. You still remember flashes of what happened, what scientists call “islands” of memories around some events.

“Fragmentary blackouts involve partial blocking of memory formation for events that occurred while the person was intoxicated,” writes Aaron White, a former assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University who is now at the National Institutes of Health, in a roundup of the existing research. Such blackouts are far more common and definitely sound like way more fun, because even if the drinker forgets what happened, they can usually remember with cues once other people remind them that they spent the entire night insisting that everyone look at pictures of chickens in sweaters.

It’s the other kind of blackout, called en bloc, where shit gets crazy. With en bloc blackouts, your brain flat-out refuses to store anything happening other than the previous two minutes; it just throws its hands up about long-term memory. “People experiencing en bloc blackouts are unable to recall any details whatsoever from events that occurred while they were intoxicated, despite all efforts by the drinkers or others to cue recall,” White writes. “Referring back to our general model of memory formation, it is as if the process of transferring information from short-term to long-term storage has been completely blocked.”

The drinker usually passes out before the en bloc blackout is over, so it’s not clear how long it really lasts — though Meyers in Gainesville may very well have made an eight-hour drive that way. Therein lies the blackout rub: Short-term memory works just enough to be somewhat functional, even though your brain is constantly dumping everything happening to it. “As a result, they can often carry on conversations, drive automobiles, and engage in other complicated behaviors,” White notes. “Information pertaining to these events is simply not transferred into long-term storage.”

This explains why you could board a ferry, get in a car or manage to find yourself on a cross-country flight and have no idea how any of it happened. It’s also why an en bloc blackout sounds like the most terrifying thing in the universe.

You do need to drink a lot to black out, but the critical factor is actually how quickly the booze saturates your bloodstream. Fast-paced drinking will plant the seed—like doing shots, for example. Skipped dinner? All the better.

One common factor in en bloc blackouts is that they “often arise from the combined use of alcohol and other drugs,” White notes. In a 2004 study of students who experienced such blackouts, that drug was often weed.

Some research suggests fragmentary blackouts start at 0.20 BAC, while en blocs occur at 0.30 percent BAC, though it’s not the BAC so much as how quickly it’s achieved. Anything over 0.30 BAC is considered very dangerous, even potentially fatal. In 2013, University of Iowa student Samantha Goudie (aka “Vodka Sam”) blew a .341. This, White told Business Insider, put her “dancing on the edge of death.”

All this must be why stories of being so blackout drunk that you wake up in a foreign city are so rare. For starters, you’d have to live to see the next morning, even if it were in another time zone. But perhaps more importantly, unless someone else is around to witness or join you on the caper you just pulled — be it friend or arresting officer — you’d never remember any of it. And even if you could piece the night together somehow on your own, it’s likely you’d be too embarrassed to spread the word anyway.