Under the knife and unaware? What happens when we're under anesthesia

Before anesthesia, there were stories of people preferring death to surgery; of hopping off operating tables and running. But are we truly fully unaware? Or does a part of us retain some memory of what happens when we're under?

Author of new book discusses if we are fully unaware or if we retain some memory when we're put under

In Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness, author Kate Cole-Adams explores what happens in our brains when we are given anesthetics. (Shutterstock/Bright097)
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Before anesthesia, there were stories of people preferring death to surgery; of hopping off operating tables and running. But are we truly fully unaware? Or does a part of us retain some memory of what happens when we're under? 

Kate Cole-Adams is a journalist and the author of Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness. She spent years researching anesthesia, looking at what happens to us when we're given anesthetics. 

Kate Cole-Adams is the author of Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness. (Courtesy of Kate Cole-Adams)

According to Cole-Adams, out of 1,000 patients, one or two will be awake enough during a surgery that if they were questioned immediately after waking up, they might remember some aspect of their experience.

Then there are accounts from patients like Donna Penner, who went under for an exploratory abdominal surgery in a rural Manitoba hospital:

"I was intubated so I couldn't couldn't say a word. So then I tried to move and only to put up my arm or to sit up or something to let them know that there was something wrong and I found pretty quickly I couldn't move. I felt everything. I felt the incision. I felt them pushing the instruments through my abdomen and into my organs. I felt them moving the instruments around and pushing my organs around as they examined them. I felt everything."

To discuss rare cases like Penner's, how anesthetics have advanced and what we know and don't know about anesthesia, The Current's summer host Mike Finnerty talks to Cole-Adams as well as Dr. Beverley Orser, the chair of the Department of Anesthesia in the Faculty of Medicine at University of Toronto and an anaesthetist at Sunnybrook Hospital.

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Liz Hoath.