The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness

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Book Description

“An obsessive, mystical, terrifying, and even phantasmagorical exploration of anesthesia’s shadowy terra incognita.” —The New Yorker

Anesthetize: to render insensible

First there’s the injection, then the countdown—and next thing you know, you’re awake. Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness is the story of the time in between, an exploration of that most crucial and baffling gift of modern medicine: the disappearing act that enables us to undergo procedures that would otherwise be impossibly, often fatally, painful.

In the past 150 years, anesthesia has made surgical intervention routine, from open–heart surgery to the facelift. But how much do anesthesiologists really know about what happens when their patients go under? Can we hear and retain what’s going on? Is pain still pain if we don’t remember it? How does the unconscious mind deal with the body’s experience of being sliced open and ransacked—and how can we help ourselves through it all?

Kate Cole–Adams weaves her own personal experiences with surgery and its aftermath with the explorations and personal accounts of others, doctors and patients alike—accounts of people who wake under the knife, who experience traumatic reactions, dreams, hallucinations, and submerged memories—accounts that evoke and illuminate the provisional nature of the self.

Haunting, lyrical, sometimes shattering, Cole–Adams leavens science with personal experience, and brings an intensely human curiosity to the unknowable realm beyond consciousness.

About the Author

Praise For This Book

Praise for Anesthesia

"An obsessive, mystical, terrifying, and even phantasmagorical exploration of anesthesia’s shadowy terra incognita."" —The New Yorker

"Ms. Cole–Adams’s journey was spurred by her discovery in 2010 that she was to be scheduled for major spinal surgery. A novelist as well as a journalist . . . she writes fluidly and dramatically, using her travels, researches, and interviews to trace her anxieties about her forthcoming general anesthetic back to their roots. Her book is as much a diary of the writing process as a scientific investigation."" —The Wall Street Journal

"Cole–Adams gives us something valuable: a humanistic meditation on pain and our will to forgetting . . . Anesthesia . . . serves as an apt metaphor for our cultural impulse toward numbness . . . Awake to the eventualities of suffering and death, Anesthesia suggests, we might treat ourselves—and each other—more kindly." —Los Angeles Review of Books

"Her book explores the terrifying topic of anesthesia awareness . . . Cole–Adams blends bits of pharmacology, neurology, philosophy, and ethics with interviews of patients, researchers, and anesthesiologists . . . with big, baffling questions about the nature of consciousness and memory." —Booklist

"Cole–Adams . . . mingles her own experiences under anesthesia with those of other patients and doctors, producing a personal work that is a mix of agony and insight." —Publishers Weekly

"Cole–Adams blends research, reflection, and memoir to try to grapple with the meaning of consciousness . . . These are thought–provoking questions, and Cole–Adams presents a lyrical journey through the vital question of what it means to be human."" —Kirkus Reviews

"If you’ve ever gone under—or even if you haven’t—the book will horrify you."" —Los Angeles Review of Books

"Kate Cole–Adams’s new book, Anesthesia . . . us[es] a combination of memoir and journalistic inquiry to investigate what consciousness really is. Reading Anesthesia, one learns a great deal about the practicalities of anesthesia, the errors that are made, the attitudes of medical professionals about anesthesia, even the history of anesthesia and how (gruesomely) invasive surgery was done prior to its invention." —The Cut

"Elegantly and, at times, heart–breakingly parsing the murky space between presence and absence, Cole–Adams has crafted a mesmerizingly unique memoir that is bound to haunt readers well beyond the last page." —Winnipeg Free Press

"For those who wonder what becomes of the body while it is undergoing general anesthesia—perhaps the closest that many of us have been to the experience of death—this book looks at the notion of being rendered unconscious from a panoply of sources. A must–read for anyone who woke from surgery and couldn’t remember anything about the experience." —Signature Reads

"With Anesthesia, Kate Cole–Adams has given us a gift. She explores not only the concepts but the characters who hope to understand the shadowy world of the anesthetized mind. However, Cole–Adams transforms from being an observer to a fellow journeyer, providing authentic insight and transmitting the excitement of those who believe that these drugs are ethereal keys that could unlock the vault of consciousness itself." —George Mashour, author of Neuroscientific Foundations of Anesthesiology

"I think [Anesthesia] is utterly brilliant. I will read anything this woman writes forever more. She is Just. So. Good. Human, funny, insightful, supersmart, a most original and perceptive writer. I ended the book in tears. It is not just about medical stuff, but deeply personal stuff. About the psyche, and pain of all kinds, and triumphing, surviving, exploring, being brave and powerful and honest. About what is said and what isn't, about listening, about dreams and hypnosis and consciousness, which is to say, about our deepest selves. You might be getting the picture: I adored it to bits." —Charlotte Wood, author of The Natural Way of Things

"A work of splendid richness and depth, driven by a curiosity so intense that it hazards at times the extreme boundaries of the sayable." —Helen Garner, author of Everywhere I Look

"Kate Cole–Adams has written an insightful and moving exploration of general anesthesia: a must–read for anesthetists and their patients." —Professor Kate Leslie, head of research in the Department of Anaesthesia and Pain Management, Royal Melbourne Hospital; former head of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists

"This book is a compelling exploration from a patient perspective of the still poorly understood phenomenon of 'anesthesia', and of the uncertain border between being unconscious and awake. Much of this material will be new not only to patients but also to many practitioners." —Professor Jaideep Pandit MA, BM, DPhil, FRCA, FFPMRCA, DM, Consultant Anaesthetist, Nuffield Department of Anaesthetics, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust & Fellow St John's College