For an English major I have a decent level of curiosity about science. It wasn’t always so when I was younger, but now I like to learn about the latest discoveries about the universe, human origins, the brain etc. It’s freaking fascinating stuff, it truly is.
Recently I’ve been reading a bit about consciousness. Of course, we still don’t know a whole lot about why we’re conscious or what causes us to be conscious. Whether it’s something about the brain or a law of the universe that consciousness exists, like gravity ya’ll, we don’t know. A particular article of interest to me is Awakening by Joshua Lang in The Atlantic. Not only does this article discuss surgery and anesthesia it also talks about Giulio Tononi who is attempting to solve the mystery of consciousness.
Let’s start with anesthesia and consciousness. I learned from this article that anesthesiology doesn’t have much of a clue about why anesthesia works but I guess for the majority of us, it does. However there are those that “wake up” while under anesthesia that present the real problem.
Imagine you’ve gone in for surgery. It could be anything, open heart, laparoscopy, maybe you’re getting your tonsils out or having your lady bits removed or you suffered a terrible accident and they are repairing your body. Now imagine that you wake up during surgery. I’ve read they’ve taped your eyes shut, so you won’t be able to look around and the drugs they’ve given you render you virtually unable to move because your muscles are paralyzed. As you wake up, you experience pain and confusion about what is happening to you. You might hear the voices of the surgeons. But you would be powerless to do anything about your predicament. You couldn’t move to indicate your consciousness, you couldn’t express your pain and confusion. You couldn’t speak. You couldn’t even open your eyes to give them a clue. Basically you are trapped inside your own body as if within a jail cell, with hearing as your best sensory perception.
That sounds like a pretty scary situation to me! I’m glad I hadn’t read this before I went in for surgery. I guess people that experience this often suffer from PTSD after the fact.
When I went into surgery it was an interesting experience. I took a Xanax before going to the hospital because I knew I’d be nervous. Once we got there we were taken into a room where I was asked a lot of the same questions by a bunch of different people. They took blood, put the IV in, etc. I met with the anesthesiologist. And then at some point, they slipped me the magic memory concoction and it was time to head to surgery. Apparently what they give you is some kind of drug that wipes out your memories.
So I remember them wheeling me out of the room. I remember wheeling down the hall and I remember entering the surgery. (It looked like you might expect, computers, table, etc). But that is as far as my memories go. However I wasn’t under anesthesia yet. I was awake and apparently functioning and answering questions. But I don’t remember! That’s the freaky part: I don’t remember it. My husband was told that I was very chatty, but oh god, what was I talking about????
It’s very interesting (don’t make me use fascinating again!) to me as far as a study of the brain that there is a drug they can give you that essentially inhibits you from creating new memories. I was there, my eyes were open, I was able to follow commands, talk and answer questions, but I don’t remember being there. So to me, it’s as if it never happened.
When I woke from surgery, I remembered nothing. So luckily I believe I didn’t wake up during surgery. Thank the lord. But I can imagine how damaging that would be to feel helpless on the operating room table. It terrifies me even to think of such a thing.
After reading this article, I checked out Tononi to learn more about his theories on consciousness. It’s pretty fascinating and makes the most sense out of anything I’ve ever read. However it still doesn’t answer the question about why or exactly how we have consciousness. The basic parts of his theory are that there are infinite possible experiences and every one is different. The second part is that consciousness is integrated. It’s impossible for us to take in something, an experience or a visual, in parts, everything we see is combined as a whole and not only that, what we see is also colored by past experiences and memories…and I’d take it a step further and say, even false memories can color how we feel. Like that childhood experience that everyone talks about and you claim to remember. But do you really remember it or just think you do because you’ve heard the story so many times?
So the moral of this story, if there is a moral, is that consciousness is freaking fascinating science. So is the universe, so is the question of why we’re here or whether there’s some bigger purpose to our existence, so is the question of why do we age or die? Freaking fascinating. And secondly that modern science and in particular medicine is pretty f’in awesome. Just imagine the trauma someone went through during the Civil War to have a limb amputated without anesthesia?
And finally, speaking of humanity and life expectancy, I also recently read a really interesting series on Slate by Laura Helmuth about life expectancy, aptly titled, Why are You Not Dead Yet? (read the entire series, it’s good stuff!). It seems that living a relatively pain free life is a purely modern expectation (I know…duh…but this article brings it home). In the past people died in horrible ways. Diseases galore. Right about now sounds like a great time to be thankful we live in a time of modern medicine and science. We might not have all the answers now, but we’re getting there and as we keep discovering, I’m gonna keep being fascinated. Freaking Fascinated.