I am seldom as conflicted about a book as I was in reading this. As the title makes clear this is an investigation into the process of anaesthesia practice, past and present. Because that process involves loss of consciousness, it also necessitates looking at what we are when unconscious, the nature of that condition and whether we can have memories and remembered (experienced) pain while in that state. I, like most of my age have a history of being anaesthetised. First, while very young, by either chloroform or ether dripped onto a mask over my face (‘look for Mickey Mouse’ – nope – consequent loss of faith in people in white outfits) an unpleasant experience later duplicated by a dentist. Mid-life, I was dogged by being ill on recovery with blurred vision and often unable to either urinate or defecate (annoying). In more recent times, it has been a breeze with no problems and easy recovery. So, clearly there has been progress and, like the author I have plenty of curiosity as to what it is, what is used, how it progresses and what is the nature of the induced unconscious state?
The book supplied a great deal of material I found interesting, useful and often engaging in its transmission. The author has been working on this topic for ten years (off and on) and is a successful journalist. She has the perspective of a non-medical person yet has read and interviewed extensively both with patients and a range of professionals (doctors, nurses, anaesthetists, surgeons, psychiatrists, hypnotists, psychologists and psychiatrists).
This personal input is supplemented with interviews contained in research papers. I found these supplementary materials probably the most interesting touching on pain experienced during and after procedures, memory loss and recovery and possible connections with later anxiety and mental disturbance.
There is even a suggestion that some people who claim physical examination by extra-terrestrials may, in fact, be reliving an experience from their anesthetised unconscious! I enjoyed the discussion of possible interactions between the conscious and unconscious mind that could be related to the physical structure and organisation of the brain. There were no cut and dried answers supplied but a great deal of questioning and troubling information especially with regard to the nature of the relationship between the medical team and patient before, during and after an anesthetised procedure.
The book has a simultaneous strength and weakness in that it is built around the author’s personal (and familial) experiences with this phenomenon but tends to often wander rather far from the central issue – often well written and even humorous. This could have been a rather cold analytical review of the same evidence and speculations but has been made more readable through the personal component. I simply feel that this was, at times, somewhat overdone and tedious.
Oddly, the book itself hints at this problem itself. Early in the book, while talking to a psychiatrist, the following interchange is recorded (Cole-Adams is a detailed note-taker).
“Was this helping? In a way, he (the psychiatrist) said, but it all sounded a bit of gobbledegook. He said this not unkindly, and I found myself agreeing. ‘And I’m not certain,’ he added, ‘whether you’re trying to sort yourself out, or whether you’re trying to sort out other things.’ “
Again, in the final chapter, as the author is about to have serious spinal surgery …
‘What was I to about to bring to my now inevitable surgery?
Well, much of what is in this book. Too much thinking, too much drinking, a submerged possibly self-inflicted melancholy, a certain stubborn stoicism. Fear, of course. Of death, of extinction, of separation – most particularly of separation from myself.’