Anesthesia & the Soul

©G.M. Woerlee, 2005–2024

The association of anesthesia with the human soul may seem strange. Nonetheless, experiences reported during general anesthesia since its demonstration by William Morton during 1846, have long aroused speculations about the relationship of general anesthesia and a possible human soul. These speculations were summarized by the anesthesiologist, Dr. Antonio Aldrete, in an article published during 1999 (the same Aldrete as from the Aldrete Score).

If the spirit truly remembers and the soul is immortal in the metaphysical sense, then the state of anesthesia may be defined as an approximation toward the threshold of the body’s mortality. Wyld noted in 1895, “The startling and significant fact is this: that while the body is as if dead under anaesthetics, the imagination becomes active and at times exalted.” But how far anesthesia affects it, where the spirit goes, and what the soul does during anesthesia, no one really knows. There are some vague manifestations as indicated by dreams, hallucinations, awareness, and transcendental experiences as described to us by some of our patients. If indeed consciousness is the most evident of all visible facts, it may just visit our body, but unlike it, remain existing for an indefinite period of time. (Aldrete 1999)

Who has not wondered whether we each have a soul, or “something” that survives the deaths of our bodies? Each generation of humans has pondered this same question for many millennia. And as long as humans have pondered this same question, philosophers, theologians and prophets have expounded their thoughts on the reality of a human soul. Even so, despite all advances in science and knowledge, the possible reality of a human soul remains no more than a belief … “Anesthesia & the Soul” reveals how anesthesia is a tool with which it is possible to investigate, and possibly understand the origins of this most ancient and pervasive of all human beliefs by doing as the writer, Marcel Proust, once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

“Anesthesia & the Soul” is just such a voyage of discovery, using “new eyes” to distil the fundamental, and commonly believed properties of the immortal human soul as expressed by millennia of religious and secular belief. At the same time, the reader will read about the common, and less common manifestations of commonly used anesthetic drugs, as well as something of the sometimes strange history of anesthesia.

CONTENTS of “Anesthesia & the Soul”

1. The Anesthesiologist

The Wonder of General Anesthesia / Anesthesia & the Human Soul / Step-by-Step Analyses / Fact & True Knowledge Essential

2. Death & Soul

The “Myriad Men of Death” / Hopes Aroused by the Shortness of Life / Many Pathways to the Same God / Pascal’s Wager / 100,000 Lemmings Can’t be Wrong / A Journey with Other Eyes

3. The Soul Defined

Definitions of the Soul / Soul-Body Interaction / An Ancient Mind-Model / The “Dreigroschenoper” / Practical and Empirical / The Term “Soul” Defined

4. Properties of the Soul

Properties, Attributes & Apparent Properties / Explicit & Implicit Properties / Sources of Knowledge of the Soul / Religious sources of knowledge / Secular sources of knowledge / Systematic Analysis of the Soul / Each person has an individual soul / The soul can separate from the body / Speed of disembodiment at death / The soul is invisible / The soul is immaterial / The soul is continually conscious / The soul controls the physical body / The soul is unaffected by the body / The brain filters and limits the soul / The soul is the mind of the body / The soul is the repository of memories / The soul can see and hear / Summary of Properties of the Soul

5. Study of Soul Properties

Subjective & Objective Experiences / Alternative Explanations & Types of Proof / Radio-controlled Airplanes & Alternative Explanations / Brain scans—Causation or Association / Eliminating “alternative explanations” / Interaction is the Key / Soul Properties Amenable to Study / Testable Interactions Between Body & Soul

6. The Gas

Revelations from the History of Anesthesia / Who was Crawford Long? / Humphrey Davy and Gravy / The Unhappy Horace Wells / Nitrous Oxide and Mental Function / Subjective mental effects of nitrous oxide / Objective mental effects of nitrous oxide / Human soul and nitrous oxide / Nitrous oxide degrades mental function / Nitrous oxide and memory / Nitrous oxide: concluding remarks / The Dubious William Morton and Etherization / Dental Practice in the Nineteenth Century / Experimentation with Ether / The Morton versus Jackson Priority Battle / Morton’s Claim & Demise / Building on the Great Discovery / Stages of General Anesthesia / Stage-1 & Conscious Paralysis / Artusio & Levels of Stage-1 Anesthesia / Subanesthetic Concentrations and Statistics / Subanesthetic Gas Concentrations & Mind / Subjective effects of subanesthetic gas concentrations / Objective effects of subanesthetic gas concentrations / The human soul and subanesthetic gas effects / Subanesthetic concentrations degrade mental function / Subanesthetic concentrations and memory / Conclusions on Anesthetic Gases and the Soul

7. In the Vein

Anesthesia and Pearl Harbor / Thiopental and Hexobarbital / Propofol & “dancing the white rabbit” / Asleep in ten seconds? / Time to Loss of Consciousness / No Memory of Loss of Consciousness / The Wonder of Midazolam / Midazolam & the soul / Midazolam causes amnesia / Midazolam and memory / Midazolam proves the absence of a soul / Dug-Induced Amnesia and the Soul

8. The Laudable Opium

The Unhappy Samuel Coleridge / Opium, Laudanum, and Paregoric / Why did our Ancestors Use So Much Opium? / Opium Abuse and the Soul / Opiate Sites of Action & Effects / Opiate respiratory depression / Opiate mental effects / Opiate subjective mental effects / Opiates administered to pain-free adults / Opiates administered to adults in pain / Women are more sensitive to opiates / Red hair & opiates / Different people & different opiates / Genetic differences & opiate effects / Opiates and the Soul / Concluding Remarks on Opiates & the Soul

9. Indian Arrow Poison

A Short History of Curare / The Action of Curare / Different Muscles—Different Sensitivities / Curare & Anesthetic Safety / Sweet and Tasty Meat / Mental Effects of Curare / Curare Affects Sensations of Weight and Position / Curare and muscle spindles / Curare and illusory sensations / Curare and Conscious Sleep Paralysis / Curare and the Soul / Submission to chemical reality / Curare and conscious sensations / Curare Conclusions

10. Anesthetic Awareness

Variable Sensitivity to Anesthetic Drugs / Awareness & Types of General Anesthesia / Different Types of Awareness Experiences / Transcendence during Anesthetic Awareness / Out-of-body Experiences during Awareness / How Common are Different Types of Awareness? / Detecting Awareness during General Anesthesia / Clinical signs of awareness / Isolated forearm technique / The wake-up test / Electronic detection of awareness / Lessons from Anesthetic Awareness / Isolated Forearm Technique and the Soul / Wake-up Test and the Soul / Anesthetic Awareness & the Soul Illusion

11. Local Anesthesia

Cocaine—the First Local Anesthetic / Spinal Anesthesia—a History / Accidental discovery / Spinal anesthesia priority battle / Surgeons, anesthesiologists & spinal anesthesia / Actions and Failure of Local Anesthesia / Incorrect placement as a cause of failure / Altered tissue chemistry as cause of failure / Local anesthetics don’t work on me / I was anesthetized, but still felt pain … / Phantoms and Loss of Body Image / Local Anesthesia and the Soul / Altered body image / Sensory information and conscious mind / Local anesthesia and reduced consciousness / Conclusions from Local Anesthesia

12. Cardiac Arrest & Soul

Consciousness during Cardiac Arrest Reports / Consciousness during Cardiac Arrest / When can consciousness be regained or retained? / Mechanism of loss of consciousness / How long to loss of consciousness? / Cardiac Massage / How much blood must the heart pump? / Cardiac output generated by cardiac massage / Blood pressure generated by cardiac massage / Electroencephalogram during cardiac massage / The Fick equation / Michael Sabom & the God of the Gaps / Cardiac Arrest & Memory / Cardiac Arrest—No Evidence for a Soul

13. Soul & Psi

Paranormal Abilities or “Psi” Defined / Independent of space and time? / Space-Time independence & personal relevance / “First Sight” and psi / Does the body filter psi abilities of the soul? / Are psi abilities switched-off by the body? / Disembodiment & psi / Disembodiment & psychokinesis / Psi exerted over large distances / No Definitive Proof for Psi / Decline effect and failure of training / Meta-analyses fail to prove the reality of psi / No Evidence for Psi in the Blind & the Deaf / Blindness due to blindfolding—Congenital and childhood blindness / Adult acquired blindness / Blind people develop no psi perceptions / Deaf people develop no psi perceptions / Medical Evidence for Psi? / Psi perceptions during general anesthesia / Psi & control of the body / Psychokinesis and brain death / Psychokinesis and paraplegia / Psychokinesis during spinal anesthesia / Psychokinesis and “lucid intervals” / No medical evidence for psi / Psi is Not Meant for Personal Use or Gain / Psi is an Irrelevant Illusion

14. Out of the Body

Out-of-Body Experiences / When do Out-of-Body Experiences Occur? / Properties of the Disembodied Mind / Hearing & Seeing during Out-of-Body Experiences / The “hearing” soul / The “seeing” soul / Blindsight & synesthesia / The soul cannot “hear” and cannot “see” / Out-of-Body Experiences During General Anesthesia / Anesthetic drugs and out-of-body experiences / Subanesthetic concentrations and out-of-body experiences / Brain Generates Out-of-Body Experiences / Out-of-body Experiences—Not Proof of a Soul

15. The 21 Gram Soul

The 21 gram study / 21 Grams and Immaterial? / The soul is unaffected by gravity / The Body Generates Sensations of Floating

16. Freedom from Heaven:

Belief vs Proof of a Soul / Conclusive evidence we have no souls / The soul cannot see or hear / Memory and the soul / Out-of-body experiences and the soul / Illusory perceptions / Soul & Ephemeral Reality / Do we have Souls with Unknown Properties? / Liberation from an Afterlife / Does this mean God is Irrelevant? / The Freedom of Finitude


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Aldrete JA, Wright AF, (1999), Anesthesia and the Soul, Bulletin of Anesthesia History, vol 17, no. 4, pages 6-7.

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