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Would you use general anaesthetic if you knew how it really worked?

Asked by SmashTheState (9603 points ) December 22nd, 2011

No one knows exactly how or why general anaesthetic works. It doesn’t make you sleep; sleep is a very specific brain state. While under the effect of general anaesthetic, you are completely awake. You just aren’t conscious. Probably.

There are some theories about how anaesthesia works. In one such theory, Sir Roger Penrose argues that anaesthesia freezes the proteins lining the microtubules in the neurons of the brain into a single eigenstate, collapsing the probability wave which is consciousness – in effect, causing reversible death. After dying, a new person is created from the stored memories of the person who died.

There are other theories, however. Another theory is that we are both conscious and awake while under anaesthesia, but completely paralyzed, and that the effect is to prevent the formation of long-term memory of our experience.

If you knew for a certainty that one of these models was in fact accurate – that it either causes death or that you remain awake and conscious through the entire medical procedure – would you ever again agree to take general anaesthetic?

(True story: I was recently in the hospital with a life-threatening infection. The nurses would come during the night to have these sorts of discussions with me, and I brought up this very topic with one of them. After explaining it to her, she stared at me wordlessly for perhaps ten to fifteen seconds while the horror of it dawned on her. When she could speak again, she said, “I… don’t think I’ll be discussing this with my other patients.” And left, shaken.)

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