The Human Soul vs. General Anesthesia...
February 10, 2011 3:18 PM   Subscribe

The Human Soul vs. General Anesthesia: I'm looking for reading material on how general anesthesia is viewed by people who hold spiritual beliefs that include the existence of an immortal soul/spirit/energy that is independent of ones physical body.

Under anesthesia, you consciously experience nothing, not even the feeling of time passing. When I had a two-hour operation, it was as if I closed my eyes and opened them two seconds later. I'm interested in how people have reconciled the idea of a soul so separate that it will go on to experience things consciously after death with the ability of a drug to cause a person to experience absolutely nothing consciously. Using the usual Christian idea of a soul, you would assume that the soul would experience at least the level of consciousness it would experience after death.

Related to this would be explanations of the relationship between the soul and amnesia. If memory can be erased by brain damage, how does one reconcile ideas of a soul that will remember the life it lived?

I hope these questions don't come across as antagonistic. I'm genuinely curious how spiritual thinkers have wrestled with these issues.
posted by the jam to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't see why you'd expect the soul to experience anything different. Sleeping causes a person to experience nothing consciously, except in dreams. How is anesthesia different? Heaven is generally phrased in the Christian tradition not as unending consciousness but unending *life*, which is not the same thing.

The memory issue is a trickier one in terms of some other stuff--especially Calvinist ideas about salvation and the elect if one can lose one's memory of one's coming to Christ--but I don't think particularly so for the notion of the afterlife, especially when so often those "lost" memories can be regained. If I lose the password to my email account, I've definitely lost access to those messages and might never get them back, but that doesn't mean they don't exist somewhere.

Not that I'm using either of these, note, to justify why the soul *does* exist, just that I don't think most people see any real conflict.
posted by gracedissolved at 3:38 PM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

You might be interested in reading about Christian Mortalists, who believe that between death and the second coming, you don't experience anything — no purgatory, no limbo, no awareness of time, no thoughts or sensations, just pure unconsciousness. Apparently in the early Protestant movement Mortalism was a big deal. It caught on as an answer to the Catholic hard-sell for masses for the dead: "No, my parents aren't going to care if I light candles for them. They're not even conscious right now! I'll meet them in Heaven when the world ends and until then I'm not gonna sweat it."

Now, Mortalists are a minority. (The majority belief within Christianity is the one you're probably imagining: immediate personal no-waiting judgment instantly after death — this is known as Particular Judgment — followed by a quick trip to Heaven or Hell with no gap in awareness.) But you asked how spiritual thinkers have coped with the idea of unconsciousness, and Mortalism is one answer: some thinkers have really embraced it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:23 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interestingly, this occurred to me as a question after undergoing general anesthesia. It's particularly freaky when, as occurred with one surgery I underwent, I can remember them putting the gas mask on me and my consciousness just - folding up (other anesthesias I've underwent I drifted off to sleep in what seemed more like a normal way, although it was somewhat abrupt). As in, I could feel my consciousness distorting and disappearing, consciously.

But while it's an interesting problem, it doesn't strike me as a real deal-breaker for the existence of the soul. As has already been pointed out, sleep does much the same thing, every night. It's also interesting to note that the reason we usually remember NOTHING from anesthesia experiences, not even dreams or disturbances, is that modern anesthesia includes amnesia-inducing drugs. So it's not that I didn't exist during my surgeries, I just don't remember them. I may have consciously experienced pressure, pain, nausea, etc., but (mercifully), I don't remember. People sometimes talk while under general anesthesia, for that matter.

And of course, as has been pointed out, you're somewhat confounding soul and (un)consciousness. To tell you where I'm coming from, I'm a Christian free-thinker who also has some Zen influences. I believe I have (really, am) a soul. I don't see a logical explanation for my consciousness, intelligence, and self-awareness to exist in a strictly mechanical, determined universe. I believe in a creator and I hope that this yearning I have for a life beyond the limits of this one is somehow rewarded. I don't know that I can prove any of this to the satisfaction of a complete skeptic, and I don't know that in 10,000 years I'll/my soul will have an unbroken chain of consciousness that really remembers much of this debate. I would expect that it would be about as interesting a memory to me as my potty training is to me now.

And speaking of that, I don't remember potty-training, but I'm still potty trained. There are loads of things from high school in the early '80s that I don't even remember - most of my teacher's names, for example, and who are these people trying to friend me on Facebook. But I don't feel the need to repeat high school, and I think I'm the same person who was potty trained and went to that high school. Not sure if that helps you understand my opinion (which is all it is - an opinion), but how my memories will endure doesn't really worry me much. It may be, as the ancients believed, that if my soul (me) endures past this life I will remember next to nothing, or even nothing, of this one. That may be what Jesus meant when he talked about things like marriage not being an idea that applies to heaven, or some of His many sayings that seem to relate to zen-like concepts like living in the moment.
posted by randomkeystrike at 4:25 PM on February 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

I don't know if this qualifies as a spiritual tradition, but it might provide a sticking place.

I've had a Scientologist explain to me that the (whatever term they use for the soul/enduring spirit/mind) is always recording, even when the person is not conscously perceiving. Meaning that even under general anaesthesia, it still feels the scalpel, hears the surgeons discussing whatever it is they're talking about, etc. So even though to you it was just lost time, your (term) still experienced and recorded everything.

This would explain why people don't like the dentist. Even though they don't have what we would call conscious memories of it, the (term to substitute for soul) still records all that poking around in your mouth as something unpleasant that happened to you. The anesthesia turned off your conscious mind, but your soul didn't go anywhere.
posted by bartleby at 4:48 PM on February 10, 2011

modern anesthesia includes amnesia-inducing drugs

I don't mean to derail, but is this true as a rule? I'm seeing lots of Google hits for people claiming to experience amnesia after a surgical procedure, but I don't see anything official/medical which cites this as a matter of course. I'd be curious to read more if so.
posted by mykescipark at 4:51 PM on February 10, 2011

Some of the biblical prophesies commonly interpreted as about "heaven" are actually in reference to a "new heaven" and "new earth" created during (or after) the end times. I'm not into eschatology much myself but I've heard it said that when the time comes, the fallen saints will rise from the grave. It's a resurrection, either figurative or literal depending on the interpretation. Those resurrected will be given new, flawless bodies when they enter the new heaven/earth. Presumably, those new bodies would include new consciousness as well.

So, to answer your question, the period of time between death and resurrection could be millennia but would seem to pass instantly, like anesthesia. We would "fall asleep" at death and then suddenly "awaken" in paradise. The continuity would be basically seamless.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 5:01 PM on February 10, 2011

Some people report having near-death experiences while undergoing surgery. Even under anesthetic and with no vital signs, they say they suddenly become aware and experience various phenomena (floating, tunnels, etc.). There is a difference between being unconscious and being dead. Maybe while we are alive we are subject to our brains but when dead, the soul separates.
posted by lazydog at 5:25 PM on February 10, 2011

Read more on mind-body dualism. These arguments have been solved a long time ago.
posted by benzenedream at 6:05 PM on February 10, 2011

In Judaism, it is believed that god holds onto a person's soul while they are sleeping (which is why they thank him for returning it in the morning). I would imagine that this is the case for any form of unconsciousness, although I have no idea what Judaism makes of the difference with respect to perception of time or dreams.
posted by Simon Barclay at 6:34 PM on February 10, 2011

modern anesthesia includes amnesia-inducing drugs

I don't mean to derail, but is this true as a rule? I'm seeing lots of Google hits for people claiming to experience amnesia after a surgical procedure, but I don't see anything official/medical which cites this as a matter of course. I'd be curious to read more if so.

I'm not a medical expert myself, but I underwent 3 surgeries in 2008 following an accident (and one more in 2009 to remove a pin) and this was one of the aims of anesthesia that was explained to me.

Google the search string "aims of anesthesia amnesia" and I think you'll see some references to books, etc.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:03 PM on February 10, 2011

mykescipark: " I don't mean to derail, but is this true as a rule? I'm seeing lots of Google hits for people claiming to experience amnesia after a surgical procedure, but I don't see anything official/medical which cites this as a matter of course. I'd be curious to read more if so."

I needed major surgery when I was 20. I begged my doctor to knock me out as soon as I got to the hospital. She promised she would as soon as I signed the paperwork, and yes, she told me that the twilight sleep would include a drug that caused amnesia.

My mom told me as they wheeled me into the OR that I responded when they said goodbye and good luck, but I don't remember it.

As to the topic at hand, I do have a memory of the OR. When they put the mask on my face for the general anesthesia, I felt like I was suffocating and woke up from my twilight sleep enough to say "I can't breathe." This is because the anesthesia does make you stop breathing so you need to be intubated. They reassured me that I was breathing fine and I had just enough presence of mind to know to take a deep breath so I'd go under.

So I guess when my body was fighting hard to keep breathing, it was enough to wake me up from near-unconsciousness to do something about it. Which is reassuring.

From that moment that I fell asleep until they woke me up afterwards, I didn't have any memory or any sensation of passing time. I never really thought about it, but I guess I would say my soul was asleep too. I think sleeping and anesthesia are different experiences - during sleep, outside stimulation (light, noise, touch) will wake you, and when you open your eyes after waking up you generally do have a sensation that time passed, if for no other reason than feeling rested.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:50 AM on February 11, 2011

I think you'd have to go back to the 19th century to find any discussion of this being a big deal, if then.

People have always completely lost consciousness for periods of time (from brief periods, like fainting, to long periods, like comas--even if you're distinguishing anesthesia from sleep {because we do have awareness of being asleep}, anesthesia isn't really distinguishable from fainting or coma) and nobody worried about what happened to their souls during that time, as far as I know.

I feel pretty solid in saying that this isn't an issue in the Christian tradition, but I am not familiar enough with other religious traditions to opine on it.

And yes, the whole point of Versed (midazolam) is the property called "anterograde amnesia." It is not the only medication with that property used as an anesthetic, but it's the one I've experienced.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:13 AM on February 11, 2011

Unsolicited personal account from ridiculously confused agnostic:

I was unconscious, and taken on a surprise!trip to the ER where (I'm told), they administered Fentanyl and put me on a ventilator.

I was TERRIFIED when I woke up. Even being intubated, the absolute lack of a feeling of time passing (is there research on what these drugs do to your internal clock?) made me immediately disregard the idea of an afterlife.

I've taken sleeping pills, I've fainted, I've been knocked out, I've had mild amnesia associated with a concussion. Nothing has come close to that feeling of 'nothingness'. Perhaps if I had been prepared, it wouldn't have been as traumatic. But as is, it ranks it the top three most horrifying experiences in my life.

(Side note: Isn't there a belief in some Christian sects that you come to heaven as a pure soul, lacking memory of your earthly life?)

And now, to go read about the drugs before I give myself nightmares.
posted by waxlight at 10:41 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

waxlight, I'll see your unsolicited personal account and raise you another from a ridiculously confused Christian: :-)

I fainted and fell once (long TMI story, but I think it had to do with going to the bathroom half-asleep in the middle of the night, straining a bit, attendent loss of blood flow...)

Woke up with a knot on my noggin on the bathroom floor with no memory of getting sleepy, losing consciousness. From my perspective, one minute I was, uh, sitting down, the next I was on the bathroom floor.

And yeah, it was traumatic. It's possibly a more unpleasant memory than the "oh shit" moment on a motorcycle when you realize someone's turning into you, or waking up from surgeries you knew you were going in for. I'd say your story is obviously more frightening than mine, in that it was two of my bad moments (at least) rolled into one. One minute you're fine, next, surprise you're in a bed with tubes sticking out of you.

Practically, I think the fear is that such a thing could obviously hap

(okay - cheap joke)

But I think the mechanical, determinist stuff goes both ways. If the brain and its attendent mechanisms controls our consciousness while we're in it, I don't see why we can't have a soul which is, for now anyway, more or less trapped by what that brain decides to do. I don't see why that negates the idea that we have a soul. It's like when the Russians announced they had been to space and hadn't seen God there. C.S. Lewis said, paraphrased: "I'd be more terrified if they HAD."
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:49 AM on February 12, 2011

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