The Mysteries of Anesthesia

I’ve only been put under general anesthesia once in my life, and ever since I’ve wondered what exactly happened to me during those lost hours. It turns out nobody really knows. But if they ever find out, they may get a little closer to solving the riddle of consciousness. That’s the subject of my newest brain column for Discover. Check it out.

0 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Anesthesia

  1. Consciousness is a big subject.

    A few years ago I was anesthetized for more than 8 hours. Waking was very different from waking from sleep. I felt that no time had passed — perhaps due to anesthesia + cooling my blood. It was a strange and wonderful feeling (ecstatic that I was out of surgery).

    The perceived jump in time was eerie. Recently I’ve been reading John Locke and his concept of identity. Extrapolating from Locke, the sense of personal identity involves, in part, creating a story of your life which is continuous in space and time. No discontinuities. Anesthesia felt like a discontinuity.

    A second really weird thing about waking from surgery. I heard the people in recovery discussing when to take the breathing tube out. They decided on 10 minutes. My mind felt alert, my throat hurt, and I wanted the tube out. When it came out, they watched as I tried to breathe on my own. Although my breath was shallow, I could do it. But then a sudden fear: breathing took extreme focus and conscious attention. I didn’t have it in me. I wanted to relax and rest, not work and breathe. Fortunately, the effort needed to breathe didn’t last long and I was soon breathing automatically.

    Anesthesia is a weird thing.

  2. I agree about the oddness. I was recently “put under” for about 45 minutes. Coming out of it was not anything like waking up after sleep.

    I’m one of those who have a pretty good internal clock. If I need to wake up early, I normally do so shortly before the alarm goes off. And if I wake up in the night, I most often have a pretty good sense of the time even before I check the clock.

    Coming out of anesthesia was very different. I had no sense of whether any time had passed or not. If I’d been told that the operation had been postponed and I’d only been out for 30 seconds, I would have accepted it without hesitation.

    It did indeed seem like a discontinuity.

  3. I’ve gone under 3 times in my life. Twice for leg surgery, once for the removal of some impacted molars. It really was an experience. Placing the mask over my nose and ask me to count backwards from ten. I got to eight before I blacked out. When I woke up again I was clear headed and pain free, of course they told me that when the anesthesia wore off it’d be a different story. Perhaps some lingering jumble in my brain prevented the pain signals from reaching me, but it was a very strange experience.

    The real horror stories come from people who don’t react normally to it, who are paralyzed completely but aware of their surroundings and can continue to feel pain. So when they go under the knife its incredibly traumatic. Doesn’t happen very frequently at all but it does happen from what I understand. Really interesting.

  4. The thought of being drugged unconcious while some wacko messes around with knifes on some of your organs makes me sick!

  5. My theory on anesthesia is that you are always conscious and able to feel pain during the surgery, but the drug messes with your brain and makes you tell other people that you were unconscious, and also prevents you from objecting if ever you need another surgery.

  6. @Scott Belyea:

    I’m one of those who have a pretty good internal clock. If I need to wake up early, I normally do so shortly before the alarm goes off. And if I wake up in the night, I most often have a pretty good sense of the time even before I check the clock.

    Coming out of anesthesia was very different. I had no sense of whether any time had passed or not. If I’d been told that the operation had been postponed and I’d only been out for 30 seconds, I would have accepted it without hesitation.

    I’m curious, did the anesthesia mess with your circadian rythms? In other words, can an extended bout under anesthetics cause jetlag? Or do our circadian clocks march on, but are just cut off from the rest of the brain as those highways are shut down during anesthesia?

  7. I have been reading everyone’s responses and they are quite in contrast to my experience. I was under anesthesia for 2 hours. And acutely aware of the time. What’s odd is I heard murmurings about what to cut and blah blah. I can’t figure out though whether I actually was hearing what happened. Or if I was dreaming it because I had been thinking about the surgery so much.

  8. i was on general anesthesia 2 weekends ago. with the mask on, i can still remember gradually losing consciousness and got to blink only once before i totally passed out. it was 7am

    then suddenly i was awake and feared that they will start the procedure with me still conscious! despite the drugged state i started to think of something to tell them that i was awake, that’s when i did the ‘what time is it’ gesture with my both hands. then i heard a voice “it’s 9am. the operation’s finished”.

    time did not pass. no dreams. weird

  9. I was just wondering, if anyone knows, is being delusional and kind of out-of-it a common part of coming out of anesthesia? If so, to what extent? I’m writing a short story and I want things to be accurate. The story is about a girl who was involved with some sort of accident (still working on it), and now has problems remembering things like emotions and colors and simple information (severe amnesia, I guess), and important people and events in her life like her boyfriend, dying father, troubled past and all the good things, too, of course. In the beginning of the story, she is coming out of anesthesia, and I want that to feel real, because I know the amnesia bit is very over-exaggerated and not to mention, overused. Hopefully, it turns out well, and not too dodgy.

  10. I am interesting in the “suddenly” going into and “suddenly” waking up from anesthesia (which has ramifications for brain theory). This seems to me nothing like drifting off to sleep or groggily waking up but happens quite quickly. Do you agree?

  11. I’ve asked many people about their experience of being put under and how they felt aftwerward. Both times I’ve experienced it the feeling was the same – a sleep so deep I have no sense of the time having passed. I pretty sure I wouldn’t have noticed if I died! I’ve concluded that souls don’t exist becuase death would be an even deeper sleep, and therefore more unaware than being put under. So if I have to wait 15 billion years for the universe to collapse and expand again, spawning another habitable planet, then it will feel as long as a 2 hour surgery. The whole experience made me very comfortable w/ the notion of dying and liberated me from faith in an afterlife.

  12. Interesting stories! Here’s mine. I’m so afraid of general anesthesia (because no one can tell me where you “go”) that when I had abdominal surgery I asked if I could do something else. The doctor said a spinal-epidural would work fine. The nurse gave me “something to relax you” and I was pretty well out of it from that before they even started the spinal injection. The next thing I remember is “being back” and in the recovery room with a really sore throat. I asked the nurse why my throat was so sore. She said I woke up screaming in the middle of the surgery (I have a very vague fuzzy-dream kind of recollection but no memory of any pain). She said the surgeon was “not pleased” and “they put you down with general after that.” Later, in my room, I apparently chatted happily for hours with friends and family and took phone calls. The next day…I had no idea what I’d said or even some of the people I’d talked to. Whether that was the anesthesia “hangover” or the shot of Darvon they gave me in my butt…who knows. 20 years earlier I’d also had a spinal-epidural for an appendectomy and also woke up! I remember that episode clearly because I told the surgeon he was “pulling” on me (I was being stitched up) and I didn’t like it. Then I told him I wanted a different doctor!

  13. Michael Jackson died of a Profofol overdose. This drug is also known as Diprivan. It’s wonderful, but it can be deadly when put into the wrong hands. Long live anesthsia.

  14. since 2001 i have had 7 spinal surgeries and have been under anesthisea for as long as 14 hours. since then my life has been very different. I dont feel like the same person i was before the surgeries. My mind keeps going back to the times i was under (did something happen ?) its as if i have become obsessed with the matter of trying to find information on this. If there is anyone out there who feels the same please reply.
    sincerely lisa

  15. 2 months ago i had a maijor sergery for blockage in my intestine……operation lasted for 8 hours…….. first i woke up nd felt smthing very cold on my abdm nd then i tried to move ma fingure but couldnt..then tried to open ma eyes still couldnt, nd then i heard they were goin to start the operation, nd i was like wtf they r goin to operte while am feeling every thing, then i tried to stop my breathing so i could tell them i am up, but there was a pipe in my throat , nd i failed again nd then they started operation nd for a while it was like hell it wass so painfull but i couldnt do anything….nd then black out,,,, then i found myself in this circular tunnel nd it was moving i saw my life like lil flury……it was flash pack of the past nd in the end it was again black out, nd then smthing started which i couldnt explain, it was like thousands of years there i was now fed up with all that……..nd at the end of that thing it was sm hopital bed………..nd again that unexplainable thing started , again it ends nd again it started, nd it was like real life……it was like millions of years in there… nd then again its black i couldnt understand nd next thing was my a sound it was of my mum, talkin to me….nd was also talkin to her that i dont like to b here it was a dammm strange experience

  16. Thought I’d write my experience… yesterday was my second time under… the first time, nothing strange…blacked out, came to after surgury…fog cleared. But yesterday… I was focused on staying awake as long as I could…. about 10 seconds tops. I was completely under…but when they brought me out… I remember I was some some place else… it was warm, I was out doors in very bright sunlight near some sort of tree with blossoms…pink & white…light breeze blowing…and I felt wonderful…it was amazing…then I sensed that I had to leave…and i did NOT want to leave…then everything began to fade…to grey… as I came out from under I was fighting to get back..and I was yelling… or perhaps trying to yell no…send me back!!!…send me back!!!.. and I kept repeating that over and over…. then I felt sort of reality crept back in… 90 minutes had passed… and it too close to 25 minutes for the fog to clear….I spent that time trying to remember as much as I could about where i’d been… but it fades very fast… All I know is… where ever my mind was… It was fantastic…and I would spend eternity there if I could!…bizzare huh?… I would go under again anytime with pleasure… jsut don’t wake me next time…let me stay!…lol… PS… the surgery went well : )

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