Memories of a procedure Credit: And I see the needle. Betty and her husband, Barney Hill, are the earliest known victims of alien abduction, and the bestseller The Interrupted Journey describes how they recalled the event under hypnosis. Their story includes nude medical exams and invasive probing—an alien abduction scenario many of us recognize from the TV shows and movies of the past 50 years.
The analyst, David V. Forrest, noted the similarity of the classic alien abduction scenario—bug-eyed greenish humanoids surrounding the subject as she lies on an examining table under a bright light—to the operating room situation, where surgeons in scrubs and masks hover over the patient and enter her body with tools.
Asked if being probed by aliens felt like his prior tonsillectomy, Barney Hill agreed: And I am not in pain. And I can feel a slight feeling. My groin feels cold.
The aliens had oddly shaped heads with large craniums, and indistinct lips and nostrils; they were all foreheads and eyes. Though he was terrified, he felt sluggish. He could have been describing the well-intentioned members of the Royal College of Anaesthetists, who have just released the largest collection of data on accidental awareness ever assembled.
While half the patients in one survey experienced pain, two-thirds experienced helplessness and panic. Over 40 percent of the patients studied for the report experienced moderate to severe psychological harm, with some incapacitated by post-traumatic stress disorder.
One awareness patient describes a flashback: I was once again in the grips of horror, again not comprehending, again trapped, again struggling to survive, yet wishing for death.
His eyes were closed. Then he woke up under general anesthesia, to full-blown terror, surrounded by distorted beings, squinting in the blue light of the OR. Perhaps the pain and horror of awareness overwhelmed his mind, or maybe it was the anesthetic drugs, but somehow the experience disappeared from his working memory--until he and Betty came to believe they had crossed paths with an unidentified flying object on a dark and lonely New Hampshire road.
Alien abduction has been considered a fantasy, a hoax, and even to some, a fact; but it is now clear that it may also represent a recovered memory. Recovered memories are frequently astounding and implausible—if they were orderly and digestible, we would not have forgotten them.
Most famously, recovered memory has been at the heart of controversial claims of childhood sexual abuse, satanic cults, and other disturbing and difficult-to-prove allegations by one family member against another. The difficulty of distinguishing between recovered memories and so-called false memories has troubled psychiatrists and patients alike.
What can anesthesia awareness teach us about recovered memory? Intense emotional states, such as those experienced during awareness, create memories that are rich in sensory detail and tend to burst out inappropriately, as in a flashback.
Trauma memories are not encoded as logical narratives, but as globs of sensation. Thus a sensory experience—like seeing a hospital worker in scrubs—can cause an awareness survivor to feel overwhelmed with panic and to relive the sensation of paralysis she suffered through while anesthetized. PTSD researchers have found that trauma memories are jumbled, and making sense of them can be compared to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
Memories are recovered in bits and pieces. Now parts of my life that had been missing were added to it again.
Parts of my life were being put back together. Similarly, the Royal College concluded that the awareness experience is less traumatic when patients understand what is happening, or receive an explanation after it has occurred.
Their report recommends that all hospitals develop protocols for helping patients with suspected or confirmed awareness. As a poster advised on the website awarenesstrauma. Alien abduction may be one of the most dramatic sequelae of anesthesia awareness, but surely not the only one. If you have ever had surgery, it may not just be your taste in music. One awareness patient, formerly a jazz aficionado, developed a bizarre aversion to the style after an awareness experience.
It was not until years later that she recalled hearing a favorite jazz piece playing in the OR while awake during surgery. The report recommends a number of changes in anesthesia practice to minimize the impact of awareness; in particular the decreased use of neuromuscular blockade, which induces paralysis in the patient and may not always be necessary. The Royal College suggests that patients be assessed post-operatively for awareness experiences, and offered explanation, reassurance, and counseling.
Perhaps in the future there will be fewer alien abductions. But it seems more likely that now that they have invaded our bodies—and our culture—for over 50 years, aliens will never leave this planet for good. And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.
Gareth, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, is the series editor of Best American Infographics and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.