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An excerpt from Kate Cole-Adams’s exploration of the mystery of consciousness and oblivion

By Charlotte Salley | December 7, 2017

It begins by counting backward from 10. Nine, eight, seven … Then the anesthesia kicks in, and the next thing we know, we wake up post-surgery. But what happens during the ellipses, that painless other-world that allows us to undergo otherwise excruciatingly painful procedures? Kate Cole-Adams, dealing with her own back surgery, examines the science behind anesthesia, as well as personal accounts by patients and doctors of the bizarre, often traumatizing experience of lost time. In the excerpt below, she probes into the memories that lie beyond consciousness.

As part of my continuing rehabilitation after my back surgery, I have begun swimming regularly at a local pool. It is not a beautiful pool, at least not underwater. Standing in the shallow end, I can look out across the water’s glittering surface to enormous windows through which gum trees reflect passing time in the shadows on their trunks. But underwater it is a different story. Cracked white tiles with darkening grout, filaments of hair, wayward Band-Aids, mucus trails that spiral downward or hang, mid-water, like fish roe. It doesn’t really bear thinking about. And so I don’t.

First is the retreat into body, the expansion of muscles, the engine of breath, tightening discomfort in my legs and shoulders, a niggling irritation, and somewhere along the way, hopefully, release. At some point I realize I am no longer thinking. I am moving through dapples of light. Of course, the moment I have this realization, everything changes and I am back to tiles. So I say to myself the word dappling and repeat it up and down, up and down. After a while I allow myself to start thinking again, but now it is different. Instead of chasing small tight thoughts, I find myself observing, almost as if from above, the pattern of the thoughts and how they fit together. I can travel to a section of manuscript that has been troubling me and move it elsewhere, understanding without interrogation why it belongs here and not there. Then I finish my swim, get out of the pool and generally forget. I retain scraps: signposts, sometimes. But the big picture, the three-dimensional knowing, is gone until next time my head is underwater.

How, then, can we hope to track down memories that are hidden even to their owners? Particularly if their owners were not even conscious when the events occurred?

In the wake of … [one] experiment, a small cohort of studies emerged, seeking evidence that people might take in information during anesthesia, even unawares. Some researchers played patients encouraging messages or soothing music during surgery, to see if it helped reduce recovery time, nausea or postoperative pain. Others further investigated the possibility of priming patients to learn words or change their behavior as a result of suggestions made while they were unconscious.

But you can’t study memories like these directly. You can’t, for instance, walk up to someone sitting in their hospital bed and say, “Is there anything you know that you didn’t know before but don’t know that you know that might be affecting you now?” It would be a bit like asking me if my unexpected interest in anesthesia … might have anything to do with submerged unconscious processes of my own. It is a good question but I can’t, by definition, give you a good answer.

Excerpted from Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness, copyright © 2017 by Kate Cole-Adams. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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