Anesthesia

In college, I took a class with Lucius Outlaw, Jr., in which we read Edmund Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations. Husserl’s book opened up the possibility of observing the stream of one’s own consciousness, something I’ve been interested in, and have practiced, ever since. So when I went in for a colonoscopy yesterday, I decided to take the opportunity to try to observe what happened as I was given anesthesia, and later how I came out of anesthesia

Thinking back to a previous colonoscopy, I realized that I simply couldn’t remember some things I knew had happened after coming out of the anesthesia. I couldn’t, for example, remember getting dressed, though I knew I had done so. Before I underwent anesthesia yesterday, I wanted to see what I could retain in memory from the time I went under anesthesia until I arrived back at home.

I have a clear memory of when I lost consciousness. One of the nurses asked me to settle myself slightly differently on the gurney, which I did, and then — nothing.

I can’t remember when I came out of the anesthesia. The previous time, I remember coming out of the anesthesia as the doctor was retracting the camera from my colon; I remember seeing the camera’s images on the video screen over my head. This time, I only have a few disconnected memories that may or may not be real.

I think I remember seating myself in the wheelchair so they could wheel me out to where Carol was waiting to pick me up; but this may be an imagined memory, since I had already been worried about whether I could fit my six-foot-five-inch frame comfortably in the wheelchair (these are the kinds of things tall people worry about). I most definitely do not remember getting out of the hospital gown and into my own clothes. I think I remember getting wheeled out to the car, and maybe I remember getting up out of the wheelchair into the car, but those memories are just fragments of images and voices; the fragments don’t form a continuous chain of memory; and some of these memories appear more like dreams than actual memories.

I think I remember parts of the drive home. Mostly I remember asking Carol if she would please stop at our local supermarket so I could get some food that I thought would sit well on my very empty stomach. But did we drive up Hillsdale Boulevard, or did we take our usual route up Highway 92? I think we went up Hillsdale, but I may think that because I definitely remember when we were driving to the colonoscopy we saw a big traffic jam westbound on Highway 92 caused by construction, so we had concluded that we should probably drive up Hillsdale. I’m pretty sure I remember Carol pulling into the parking lot at the supermarket, and I definitely remember walking around the supermarket because I was feeling disoriented and unsteady (I almost asked Carol to hold my hand). But there are definite holes in my memory.

I don’t really remember the drive from the supermarket to our house. And it seems to me that there are chunks missing from my memory of yesterday afternoon, though I can’t be sure. Even now, twenty-one hours after having gone under anesthesia, I still don’t feel completely back to normal — though I probably wouldn’t have noticed that if I hadn’t made the effort to recall what I had remembered since I was given anesthesia.

What’s really fascinating about this is that because of the anesthesia, I don’t have an uninterrupted linear flow of thoughts and memories for the past twenty-one hours. No doubt the mechanistic neuroscientists will have their explanation based on imaging of electrical impulses in the brain, while psychologists might have different explanations. But I’m simply making a phenomenological investigation, that is, observations made as it were from the inside: it’s been a fascinating experience.

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