Some background: as I said in my last post, I had a colonoscopy on Friday. The result, succinctly put: I'm not going to die of cancer. Not yet, anyway. This was a huge relief for me and my loved ones--those I told about it, that is. Even though I'm blogging about it, I'm old-fashioned enough that it makes me blush to even type the word "colon."
There was another part to this procedure that does not make me blush, but troubles me at the philosophical level. It's something that worried me the first time I had one of these, though I didn't experience it at that time. It's amnesia.
Some deep background: prior to my first (blush) colonoscopy, I had never been "under." Every previous medical or dental procedure I'd had involved only local anesthesia. I was conscious through the whole thing, uncomfortably so at times. (I subscribe to the theory that says redheads are anesthesia-resistant, and it's borne out in that I always need extra Novocaine, often to the consternation of my dentist.) Apart from sleeping, I'd never been unconscious. I'm a light sleeper, as well, and of all the people I've shared a room with, I've had only a few reports of talking in my sleep. Coming up on that first colonoscopy, the first drug-induced sleep of my entire life, I was nervous about a continuity gap.
The fear factor in this is the implicit philosophy behind my sense of self. I experience self in conscious awareness, which is to say, perception coupled with thought. Cogito ergo sum. I don't covet sleep because I know there will be a point in my thoughts at which I will slip into oblivion, and whatever I was thinking about as I reached that point will be permanently gone from my internal timeline.
Two years ago, when I went under for my first colonoscopy, there was no sense of such a gap in consciousness. I was aware of the nurse inserting the anesthesia into my IV, a second or two of wondering what it would be like, and then, almost without a break, of realizing I was conscious and the procedure wasn't quite finished. (There's that resistance to anesthesia again.) Fortunately, I didn't feel any discomfort; it was over seconds later. I think I dreamed while I was under, but like most dreams, I was only aware that I'd had them, and couldn't hang onto any details.
Last Friday, on the other hand, I was out for the entire procedure, and continued to be out as I was wheeled to recovery and had all the tubes and electrodes removed and the IV wound bandaged. At least, in my memory, I was out. In fact, Amy arrived to find me apparently conscious. I asked her about her workout (she'd gone to the gym after dropping me off). A little later, I asked her again. Apparently the nurse winked at her, having warned her my memory would be playing tricks for awhile. I can't remember any of this conversation; it's as if it didn't happen at all. I vaguely remember Amy helping me with my socks, and I distinctly remember the doctor telling me he'd found nothing that I needed to worry about. I also remember eating graham crackers and unsalted Saltines, washing them down with orange juice. And then we were in the car, driving home.
So there you have it: there is a gap in my memory tape, a break in my internal timeline, a period of probably just a few minutes when I was conscious, but was not recording what took place. And it bothers me.
I was told, just before the anesthesia was administered, that the drugs being used on me had an amnesiac quality to them, that even if I became conscious during the procedure, I'd have no memory of it, so it's not as if this was a surprise to me. And I've certainly forgotten many things over the course of my life. Like most adults, there are large portions of my childhood that are blanks to me. I've always been absent-minded about where I set things down, too, and frequently spend large blocks of time trying to locate something that I can even remember telling myself I wouldn't be able to find in the specific place I was leaving it. Finally, Amy and I frequently find ourselves disagreeing about the details of an experience, or about something one of us is certain he or she told the other. Post-finally, there are dreams, and the common experience of knowing I've had them but not remembering details. So I'm aware of the impermanence of memory.
Why, then, does this small gap in recent memory bother me? I've been wrestling with it all weekend, and I think I've put a finger on the issue: just as the possibility of cancer connected me to my own mortality, this experience forces me to confront the possibility that my identity is nothing more than a manifestation of the organic computer that regulates my body. And if that is the case, then perhaps I don't, after all, have an immortal soul. Which means that when the computer shuts down and the lights go out, I simply stop existing. So it comes back to mortality.
To be honest, I've been in the neighborhood of this viewpoint for at least two decades. As many of you know, my son Sean experienced a severe birth trauma that damaged his brain. Amazingly, his brain rewired itself so that he has been able to function at a high level, normal in most respects, and to be a wonderful, compassionate, generous person I am privileged to know. But he does have some differences.
One of them is epilepsy. He's not had a major seizure in many years, seems to have outgrown them, in fact, but it was touch and go through most of his childhood, with a treatment odyssey that lasted for more than a decade. Another is of the differences is memory.
When I was first aware of Sean's epilepsy, he had a behavior pattern that could be extremely frustrating to siblings and parents: constantly asking the same thing about what would be happening later in the day. Often he was looking forward to an experience he'd been told was coming: a movie, an amusement park, sleeping in a bunk. What I didn't realize was that he was having tiny seizures almost constantly, and every time he had one, his short-term memory was wiped clean. Repetition was one way for him to work around this problem. Another was to use the people around him as auxiliary hard drives: if he couldn't remember it, perhaps we could do it for him. These tiny seizures also kept him from learning how to read until he was in the third grade, and the ketogenic diet put a stop to them.
Sean's experience tells me that memory is an artifact, a pattern we create within our brains that can be disrupted, altered, erased by a flash of electricity, just as a power surge can corrupt files on my laptop. Typing this blog, I can rest secure that it's being backed up to the internet every few seconds, so that even a total failure of my computer will cost me only a sentence or two. The human brain is not like this, not yet, anyway. We don't have a cloud to backup our memories. We can, like Sean, entrust them to those around us, but that's not the same thing as being able to tap into a server. Every time we turn to a friend to help us remember, we are rebuilding those experiences, rewriting them like a historical novelist.
Even though Sean's memory journey has taught me how much the brain is like a computer, it has also given me some hope that I am more than just the sum of my conscious experiences and my memories of them. Sean has always been Sean: gentle, methodical, loving, stubborn, helpful, a beautiful human being I am privileged to call my son. Not even the status seizures that hospitalized him and forced him to relearn how to walk, not even the powerful psychotropic drugs that did so little to dampen his seizures but rendered him sleepy and cranky, none of the horrible tricks that birth trauma has played on his brain could alter who he is. This gives me hope, as well, that even without the memories that are starting to leak from my middle-aged brain, even with the temporary amnesia of anesthesia, even with the creeping senility I am bound to experience as I continue to age, I will continue to be me; and maybe--I can't know this with any certainty at all--there will be some kind of continuation of that self even as my body finally falls away from me.
I can take comfort in this: for those minutes that I can't remember, I was apparently patient, helpful, friendly, polite, interested in what my partner had been up to while she was at the gym. I acquitted myself admirably. That's the kind of man I want to be, even when I'm not conscious. So at least I've got that going for me.