Nothing to be afraid of | State of Mind

We perceive our surroundings – and ourselves within them – not as they are, but as is useful for us to do so. Like many sufferers of depression my main desire at these times was not for greater understanding, but for the absence of all experience. I just wasn’t there; I wasn’t anywhere. I was having a small operation and my brain was filling with anaesthetic. There were no hallucinated monsters, no voices in the head, but I was dimly able to comprehend that my brain was misperceiving, and therefore also mis-controlling, the interior of its own body – my body.  
Image ©   Carlos Lorenzo I could have been under for five minutes, five hours, or five years. I am never able to perceive my brain as the basis of my conscious experiences, precisely because it is the basis of all experience. I experience myself as a unified subject of experience in a way that seems just as real as the tree outside my window; as real as the window. It’s another thing altogether to turn that insight inwards, and to grasp, however tenuously (because the thought, if it is a thought, slips away like water as soon as it appears) that the basic background experience of ‘being me’ is a fragile construction of the brain, another controlled hallucination which can – and sometimes does – disintegrate entirely. I’ve no idea whether my own anaesthesia reached these depths, most likely it didn’t, but it was enough to plunge me into oblivion, into non-existence. On waking from a deep sleep there’s always a basic sense of time having passed, of a continuity between then and now. With skill it’s even possible to take people down to a level where their electrical brain signals more-or-less flatline, something otherwise only seen in a coma or when near brain death, and then to bring them back safely. What underlies our sense of self: the experience of being the subject of experience? Oblivion really does mean oblivion. But instead of the anguish of depression I found this experience – the temporary absence of all experience – deeply reassuring. Some of the more elusive symptoms – the overwhelming feelings of bodily discomfort – now began to make sense in terms of these deeply embodied neural interactions. We map out the neural interactions that shape our perceptions of the external world. They provide the raw materials my brain uses to generate the rich perceptual scenes that guide our behaviour. Nothing of academic neuroscience and psychiatry prepared me for it. More than just a body, more than just a perspective, or the point of origin of a willed action. It is the medium, not the message. It’s one thing to recognize that our experiences of the world around us are only indirectly related to an external reality. And this was becoming apparent both objectively and subjectively: the medium was becoming the message. Drowsy and disoriented but definitely there. Appropriately enough, the second lifting of the veil happened when I ceased to exist. And echoing Julian Barnes, when the end comes there is nothing – really nothing – to be afraid of. In 2007, returning to Brighton after more than six years in California, I suffered major depression. Of course, the immediate experience of being me inevitably and endlessly disrupts any attempt to understand the brain as a mechanism. The world around me, filled with colour and noise, alive with objects and the spaces between them. One idea is that our conscious experiences of the world, and of being-a-self within it, are ‘controlled hallucinations’, in the memorable words of Ramesh Jain. The controlled hallucination of being me dissolved altogether. And myself within that world. But there have been a few occasions in my life when I’ve glimpsed, fleetingly, something from behind that veil, and the dependence of consciousness on the brain has become a part of my lived reality. But here is the big question. They are fantasies that sometimes – but not always – coincide with reality. Emerging from general anaesthesia is completely different. In the language of brain activity, deep general anaesthesia has more in common with catastrophic conditions like the vegetative or minimally conscious states than it does with sleep – something anaestheologists sensibly avoid telling their subjects. This hallucination idea is an old one, but its implications are only recently becoming clear. I was not. Why is life in the first person? How can the combined activity of nearly ninety-billion brain cells – each one a tiny biological machine – give rise to conscious experiences of the world around us, and of ourselves within it? Each of us navigates the buzzing, blooming profusion of our individual worlds by following a probabilistic Ariadne’s thread of self-fulfilling perceptual prophecies. The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —
– Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems, 1924
 
It all seems so real. Grappling with this mystery, neuroscientists like me look at what happens in the brain when consciousness is lost in sleep or anaesthesia. I remember encroaching sensations of blackness, detachment and falling apart and then… I was back. But it is circumscribed. Because it turns out that the sensory signals delivered to my brain do not disclose an external world in its objective glory. Life in the first person is both magical and terrifying.