Melbourne-based journalist and novelist Cole-Adams (Walking to the Moon, 2008) blends research, reflection, and memoir to try to grapple with the meaning of consciousness.
When someone is anesthetized for an operation, they are usually told that they will be “going to sleep.” What actually happens is much more complex, and not even anesthesiologists can agree on or fully explain what happens under anesthesia. In her first work of nonfiction, the author seeks to uncover some of the ethical implications of this procedure, such as the potential impact of words by doctors when a patient is unconscious or how to deal with the small but still troubling percentage of patients who wake up in pain during surgery, unable to communicate. She depicts her interactions with some of the foremost researchers working to understand these and other questions—e.g., why patients remember things that happened under anesthesia only when hypnotized and how an anesthesiologist can actually tell if a patient is awake. While Cole-Adams has amassed a lot of useful information and telling anecdotes, her purpose is not to simply narrate a history of anesthesia or to describe with scientific detail what happens to the brain when anesthetized. Incorporating dream accounts and bits of memoir, weaving in and out of her own and others’ stories, and sharing her own limitations of understanding, the author uses a collagelike structure that seems to mimic the amorphous nature of the mind as someone drifts into unconsciousness under anesthesia. As Cole-Adams writes, “part of the difficulty in talking about anesthesia—not how to do it, but what it actually does—is that any discussion veers almost immediately into the mystery of consciousness.”
While the author raises more questions than she answers, and some readers may be put off by her less-that-straightforward style, these are thought-provoking questions, and Cole-Adams presents a lyrical journey through the vital question of what it means to be human.