Professor Jaideep Pandit, Consultant Anaesthetist & Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford, UK, has proposed the existence of a new state of consciousness called ‘dysanaesthesia.‘ Dysanaesthesia is a state of being that numerous people have experienced while under the effects of anesthesia. It is neither the conscious nor unconscious state, it is a new state of consciousness.
Pandit believes that dysanaesthesia is a wrench in the spokes when attempting to monitor the conscious state of a person under anesthesia. While it’s easy to tell the difference between a conscious and unconscious state of being, it is extremely difficult to recognize when someone is in between the two states. It is also near impossible to know if a person’s state is closer to a conscious or unconscious state when dealing with states in between the two. According to Pandit, we know very little about the mechanics of shifting into different states of consciousness:
Even in 2013, we are still struggling to define what consciousness actually is. We can obviously see when someone is awake and responding, and when someone is asleep or unconscious, but our understanding of what changes us from one state to the other is still evolving.
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As the old saying goes, “the more we learn, the less we know.” Consciousness is a persistent enigma. It is ubiquitous throughout history as a central theme in philosophical ideology. Consider, what does it mean to be conscious? Is there a clear line between a conscious and unconscious state? Or between a confused and lucid state? Any answer could be argued to irrelevancy. Consciousness is at the center of this debate.
Despite its medical prevalence, no one fully knows how anesthesia actually works. Scientist are still unable to identify the specific electroencephalography (EEG) patterns that show when a person has slipped into an unconscious state, or back into a conscious one. While most people think of anesthesia as the drug that makes you fall into a deep sleep, this idea is a total misconception. Emery Brown, professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School told NPR that,
Sleep is not the state you’re going in, nor would it be the state in which someone could perform an operation on you. What we need to do in order to be able to operate on you — to perform a procedure which is, indeed, very invasive — is to put you in a state which is effectively a coma which we can readily reverse.
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Prof. Pandit examined data from studies all over the world and found that if a patient is asked following surgery if they recall anything, 1 in 500 will say they did. 1 in 15,000 patients report without being asked that they were aware during the surgery. This means that each year up to 40,000 people will wake up during surgery. Doctors have called this phenomenon anesthesia awareness, and it can be a nightmarish experience and state of consciousness for some.
Interestingly though, only a third of the patients who reported ‘waking up’ experienced pain or panic during the awareness. For the most part, if someone wakes up during surgery it isn’t unpleasant or of particular importance during the episode. This neutral state is what Pandit proposes is the foundation of the new consciousness. He explains that,
What we are possibly seeing is a third state of consciousness—dysanaesthesia—in which the patient is certainly aware of events, but not concerned by this knowledge (especially as they are not in pain).
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Prof. Pandit performed his own experiment on the new state of consciousness. In his experiment Pandit anesthetized patients and used a neuromuscular blocking agent to paralyze the entire body except for the forearm. The patients did not voluntary move their fingers, but a third of them responded to questions through finger movement. These are very surprising results because,
To date no patients in these experiments have moved their fingers voluntarily to indicate wakefulness, yet 1 in 3 (a third) of them can move their fingers if asked to by medical teams. This again suggests that in a majority of those patients who experience awareness, it may not be unpleasant or distressing to them, since they are not moving their fingers to make medical teams aware of this.
The patients are aware, but totally unscathed, and in fact not even interested in the objective reality we are all experiencing. They are not conscious, yet not totally unconscious. This is a realm of consciousness that we don’t have even a rudimentary map to begin to understand. Further studies could lead to a better understanding of consciousness itself, as well as quelling fears people have of anesthesia.
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This state sounds very much like deep meditative states people have described. Maybe that’s because meditation is the practice of experiencing states of consciousness without judgement. Regardless, if while in this state people are “aware of events, but not concerned,” then it sounds like a worthwhile state to explore. Onward to our new state of consciousness.