Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/October 1878/Consciousness Under Chloroform

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A UNIVERSITY graduate, whose studies in psychology and philosophy have made him an observer able to see the meanings of his experiences, has furnished me with the following account of the feelings and ideas that arose in him during loss of consciousness and during return to consciousness. My correspondent, describing himself as extremely susceptible to female beauty, explains that "the girl" named in the course of the description was an unknown young lady in the railway-carriage which brought him up to town to the dentist's. He says his system resisted the influence of chloroform to such a degree that it took twenty minutes to produce insensibility: the result being that for a much longer time than usual he underwent partial hyperæsthesia instead of anæsthesia. After specifying some dreadful sensations which soon arose he goes on to say: ". . . . I began to be terrified to such a wonderful extent as I would never before have guessed possible. I made an involuntary effort to get out of the chair, and then—suddenly became aware that I was looking at nothing: while taken up by the confusion in my lungs, the outward things in the room had gone, and I was 'alone in the dark.' I felt a force on my arm (which did not strike me as the surgeon's 'hand,' but merely as an external restraint) keeping me down, and this was the last straw which made me give in, the last definite thing (smell, sound, sight, or touch) I remembered outside my own body. Instantly I was seized and overwhelmed by the panic inside. I could feel every air-cell struggling spasmodically against an awful pressure. In their struggle they seemed to tear away from one another in all directions, and there was universal racking torture, while meantime the common foe, in the shape of this iron pressure, kept settling down with more and more irresistible might into every nook and crevice of the scene. My consciousness was now about this: I was not aware of anything but an isolated scene of torture, pervaded by a hitherto unknown sense of terror (and by what I have since learned is called 'the unity of consciousness:' this never deserted the scene, even down to the very last inaudible heart-beat). Yet I call it a 'scene,' because I recognized some different parts of my body, and felt that the pain in one part was not the same as that in another. Meanwhile, along with the increased intensity of convulsion in my lungs, an element of noise had sprung up. A chaotic roaring ran through my brain, innumerable drums began to beat far inside my ear, till the confusion presently came to a monstrous thudding, every thud of which wounded me like a club falling repeatedly on the same spot. . . .

"From this stage my lungs ceased to occupy me, and I forget how the struggle finished. There was a sense of comparative relief that, at any rate, one force was victorious, and the distraction over; the strange, large fright that had seized me so entirely when I felt myself ensnared into dark suffocation was now gone also, and there was only left the huge thudding at my ears, and the terribly impetuous stroke of my heart. The thudding gradually got less acutely painful, and less loud; I remember a recognition of satisfaction that one more fearful disturbance was gone. But, while the thunder in my ear was thus growing duller, all of a sudden my heart sprang out with a more vivid flash of sensation than any of those previous ones. The force of an express engine was straining there, and like a burning ball it leaped from side to side, faster and faster, hitting me with such a superhuman earnestness that I felt each time as if the iron had entered my soul, and it was all over with me forever. (Not that 'I' was now any more than this burning-hot heart and the walled space in which it was making its strokes: the rest of 'me' had gone unobserved out of focus.) Every stroke produced exquisite pain on the flesh against which it beat glowing, and there was a radiation, as from a molten lump of metal between inclosures. Presently the unbearable heat got less, and there was nothing remaining except a pendulous movement, slackening speed, and not painful. Of nothing beyond was I conscious but this warm body vibrating: not a single other part of me was left, and there was not a single other movement of any sort to attract my attention. A fading sense of infinite leisure at last, in a dreamy, inaudible air; then all was hushed out of notice.

". . . . There was the breaking of a silence that might have been going on forever in the utterly dark air. An undisturbed, empty quiet was everywhere, except that a stupid presence lay like a heavy intrusion somewhere—a blotch on the calm. This blotch became more inharmonious, more distinctly leaden; it was a heavier pressure—it is actually intruding farther—and, before almost there was time to wonder feebly how disagreeable was this interruption of untroubled quiet, it had loomed out as something unspeakably cruel and woful. For a bit there was nothing more than this profoundly cruel presence, and my recognition[1] of it. It seemed unutterably monstrous in its nature, and I felt it like some superhuman injustice; but so entire had been the still rest all round before its shadow troubled me, that I had no notion of making the faintest remonstrance. . . . It got worse. . . . Just as the cruelty and injustice became so unbearable that I hardly could take it in, suddenly it came out a massive, pulsating pain, and I was all over one tender wound, with this dense pain probing me to my deepest depths. I felt one sympathetic body of atoms, and at each probe of the pain every single atom was forced by a tremendous pressure into all the rest, while every one of them was acutely tender, and shrank from the wound—only there was nowhere to shrink. A little before, I had merely felt the cruel element in helpless passivity; now, a still more crushing probe came; for an instant it forced all my atoms into one solid steel-mass of intense agony—then, when things couldn't go much farther, and all must be over, a sense of reaction emerged; there was a loosening, and I was urged into relief by uttering from my very depths what seemed not so much (at first) a piteous remonstrance as a piteous 'expression' (like an imitation) of the pain: in fact, the sense of woe had got also outside, and I heard it, a very low, infinitely genuine, moan. . . . The next second there was a change: hitherto it had been pain partout—now there came a quick concentration, the pain all ran together (like quicksilver), and I suddenly was aware that it was (localized) up on the right; while, simultaneously with this recognition of locality, a feeling of incipient resistance began to be in other parts (not that I felt them except just as other parts) of me from which the pain had receded. The pain itself was no less intense, rather more vivid, only I seemed to take it in a more lively manner: my uttering of a moan was no longer a mere faithful representation out into the air of what was inside me, but I had a slight sense of making an appeal for sympathy: to whom or to what I did not know, for there was no one or anything there. I was just going to utter a yet louder moan—as a fresh, fearful imposition of force plunged into me—when, there in front of me, to the left of my pain, was that girl, with those lovely ankles, and the graceful, Zingari brown stockings. . . . I felt, as distinctly as if some one had told me aloud, that I would not make any cry, that it was not the thing.

"Now came an agonizing, cold wrench, and two or three more successively, in such a hideously rough fashion, that the girl went, and everything was tortured out of me but the darkness and the gigantic racking, swaying torture which was excruciating my right side. An iron force, like a million-horse power, had hold of me, and I was being pulled upward and out of where I was, while I myself seemed another million-horse power which would not be pulled: the pain was something to be remembered. But up I came, the darkness got denser (I went so fast); it was vibrating, the dense agony vibrated faster; I was quivering, struggling, kicking out; everything was a convulsion of torture, my head seemed to come to the surface, a glimpse of light and air broke on the darkness, voices came through to me, and words; I recognized that a 'tooth' was being slowly twisted out of my jaw, then I groaned imploringly, in true earthly style, as if this was too much, and I ought to be let alone now I was getting my head out; then I swallowed in air, made an exertion with my 'chest,' found my 'arms' were pressing something hard, grasped the 'chair,' and pushed myself up out in bewildered light, just as the dentist threw away the second right molar from the upper jaw."

Concerning this account it may be remarked, on the one hand, that the higher consciousness seems not to have been wholly abolished; since there remained certain emotions and certain most general ideas of relation to objective agents. On the other hand, it is to be doubted whether the partial consciousness which the narrator had during anæsthesia is not, in the description, eked out in some measure by the ideas of his recovered consciousness carried back to them. Be this as it may, however, it is clear that certain components of consciousness disappeared and others became extremely vague, while a remainder continued tolerably distinct. And there is much significance in the relations among them: 1. There ceased earliest the sensations derived from the special senses; then the impression of force acting on the body from without; and, simultaneously, there ceased the consciousness of external space-relations. 2. There remained a vague sense of relative position within the body; which, gradually fading, left at last only a sense of those space-relations implied by consciousness of the heart's pulsations. 3. And this cluster of related sensations produced by the heart's action finally constituted the only remaining distinct portion of the ego. 4. In the returning consciousness we note first a sense of pressure somewhere; there was no consciousness of space-relations within the body. 5. The consciousness of this was not a cognition proper. In an accompanying letter my correspondent says of it: "'Recognition' seems to imply installation in some previously-formed concept (talking in the Kantian way), and this is just what was not the case:" that is, consciousness was reduced to a state in which there was not that classing of states which constitutes thought. 6. The pain into which the pressure was transformed was similarly universal instead of local. 7. When the pain became localized, its position in space was vague: it was "up on the right." 8. Concerning the apparition of "the girl," which, as my correspondent remarks, seems to have occurred somewhat out of the probable order, he says, in a letter: "I did not recognize her 'under any concept'—what I saw seemed to be almost unassisted intuition in the Kantian sense." 9. The localization of the pain was at first the least possible—the consciousness was of that part versus all other parts unlocalized.

These experiences furnish remarkable verifications of certain doctrines set forth in the "Principles of Psychology." This degradation of consciousness by chloroform, abolishing first the higher faculties and descending gradually to the lowest, may be considered as reversing that ascending genesis of consciousness which has taken place in the course of evolution; and the stages of descent may be taken as showing, in opposite order, the stages of ascent. It is significant, therefore, that impressions from the special senses ceasing early, leave behind, as the last impression derived from without, the sense of outer force conceived as opposed by inner resistance; for this we have seen to be the primordial element of consciousness. Again, the fact that the consciousness of external space disappeared simultaneously with the consciousness of external force, answers to the conclusion drawn that space-ideas are built out of experiences of resistant positions, the relations among which are measured by sensations of muscular effort. Further, there is meaning in the fact that a vague sense of relative position within the body survived; since we concluded that by mutual exploration there is gained that knowledge of the relations among the parts of the body which gives measures through which the developed knowledge of surrounding space is reached. Once more we get evidence that the ego admits of being progressively shorn of its higher components, until finally the sensations produced by the beating of the heart remain alone to constitute the conscious self: showing, in the first place, that the conscious self, at any moment, is really compounded of all the states of consciousness, presentative and representative, then existing, and showing, in the second place, that it admits of being simplified so far as to lose most of the elements composing the consciousness of corporeal existence. Whence it is inferable that self-consciousness begins as a mere rudiment consisting of present sensations, without past or future. Lastly, we have the striking testimony that there exists a form of consciousness lower than that which the lowest kind of thought shows us. The simplest intellectual act implies the knowing something as such or such—implies the consciousness of it as like something previously experienced, or, otherwise, as belonging to a certain class of experiences. But we here get evidence of a stage so low that a received impression remains in consciousness unclassed: there is a passive reception of it, and an absence of the activity required to know it as such or such.

  1. If there were a noun belonging to the verb "To be aware of," like "recognition" to "recognize," it would be the one to use here.