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Lights Out. The Magic of Anesthesia and Amnesia

“Right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time… I think I’ve forgotten this before. -Steven Wright”

I had minor surgery recently that required general anesthesia. I have been knocked out a lot in my life, but it had been about 10 years since my last surgery on my foot. A lot has changed. Then I don’t remember so many people coming in to tell me what would be happening.

All of them asked me the same questions to make sure I was the right patient and that they were performing the right procedure and then explained what they would be doing. The anesthesiologist explained his portion of the proceedings in great detail, which seemed pointless since he was there to make me forget the whole thing. He explained how they’d knock me out. There would be sedation, given intravenously, a mask over my mouth to deliver the anesthesia, and a tube in my throat, though it wouldn’t go all the way in, so I wouldn’t have a sore throat after.

Right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time… I think I’ve forgotten this before.
-Steven Wright

Just before 9:30 they started my IV and then walked me down to the operating room. I felt fine, and I even jumped up on the operating table, telling them I didn’t need a step stool. I laid back on the thin table and looked up at the enormous lights above me and a few people I hadn’t met yet apologized for their cold hands. For a split second, I started to get anxious. I thought about the mask and the tube. And that was it. I don’t even know if I closed my eyes.

Before I knew it, someone was saying my name. I opened my eyes and looked up at the clock and saw that it was 11:30. I didn’t remember a thing. The magic of amnesia.

Once I had slept off the rest of the drugs, it made me wonder about the powerful drugs they had slipped me this and other times I’d gone under. How exactly did they make me forget? I hadn’t fallen asleep yet in the operating room. They had done what they said they were going to do, putting me under anesthesia with the mask and securing the tube. I just couldn’t remember.

All I could really find out was that the drugs that give you amnesia affect the area of your brain that remembers things. Duh. So you can respond, but you can’t remember. These were the drugs given in my IV to make me relax.

The anesthesia was given through the mask while I was still awake but experiencing a state of amnesia. Scientists still aren’t exactly sure how anesthesia works. A guess is that it changes cell activity and makes it harder for neurons to fire. Recent studies are focusing on what anesthesia can teach us about where consciousness exists in the brain.

Looking back on the history of surgery, I much prefer this method. In the past, I might be given a stick to chew on as they cut into me. Thankfully we have drugs to help us forget. Even if we don’t know how they work.

A version of this post was previously published on CatherineLanser and is republished here with permission from the author.

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Photo credit: istockphoto



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