Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion

Kate Cole-Adams

Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion
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Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion

Kate Cole-Adams

You know how it is when you go under. The jab, the countdown, the- -and then you wake.

This book is about what happens in between.

Until a hundred and seventy years ago many people chose death over the ordeal of surgery. Now hundreds of thousands undergo operations every day. Anaesthesia has made it possible.

But how much do we really know about what happens to us on the operating table? Can we hear what’s going on around us? Is pain still pain if we are not awake to feel it, or don’t remember it afterwards? How does the unconscious mind deal with the body’s experience of being cut open and ransacked? And how can we help ourselves through it?

Haunting, lyrical, sometimes shattering, Anaesthesia leavens science with personal experience to bring an intensely human curiosity to the unknowable realm beyond consciousness.


It varies, but if you’re sinking into a general anaesthetic, a number of things are happening, or could be happening. Your consciousness (whatever that is) is being switched off (whatever that means, though it may mean the channels between parts of the brain are blocked). You’re being paralysed so you don’t flinch and kick and punch and rattle around during the operation. Quite possibly, painkillers are numbing your absent self. Again, whatever that means. Finally, and perhaps most strangely, you might be given an amnesiac, stopping the possibility of formation of memories, at least conscious ones. All of this speaks to the complications involved in anaesthetising a patient safely and effectively, but also to the psychological and philosophical questions around consciousness and memory.

Kate Cole-Adams has been fascinated with our funny non-being during surgery for a long time, and Anaesthesia feels like a book that’s taken over a decade to write, which it is. It also feels like you’re having a decade’s worth of conversations with a dogged, but generous and resourceful thinker, with someone (she is both a journalist and a novelist) who can crack open a complex idea, and then run with it. She has spent these years travelling to conferences and talking to prominent researchers, surgeons, anaesthetists and psychologists, as well as reading the not entirely clear research to work out what exactly we know about anaesthesia, the brain, memory, what it means to have consciousness. She also talks to other medical staff, and friends and family, and is brilliant at knowing which of her own experiences are illuminating. Most of us have gone under, some of us many times. And it’s almost always fine, and is likely not to be your greatest concern. But there are instances where things have been deeply unsettling, or just strange, sometimes even in good ways.

Anaesthesia is part memoir, part science writing, part cultural essay, but particularly brings to mind superb nature writers like Helen McDonald (H is for Hawk) and Michael Pollan (Second Nature), for the way it uses this octopus concept to open philosophical questions, and to reflect.

Oliver Driscoll works as a bookseller at Readings Doncaster.

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