Involuntary Nonconsciousness


About a month ago, on Thursday, May 19, 2011, I was flying to LA because I had a meeting for work in Irvine (and I definitely took the opportunity to visit ARI!).

As usual, I loaded up my tablet with episodes of TV shows that I hadn't gotten around to watching yet. On this short flight, I planned to watch House.

Let me give you some background first, though:

You wouldn't know it from how many medical drama TV shows I watch(ed), but I hate, hate watching skin being pierced by needles, scalpels, and the like. Strangely, I have no problem with swords and knives violently ripping through flesh, but there's something about the surgical, sterile precision of a doctor's tools compromising the structural integrity of the epidermal layer that really makes me uncomfortable. It's weird. Violence? No problem. Life-saving surgeries? Extreme discomfort. Go figure. Maybe it's to do with Xena and Kill Bill being so unreal, so I don't empathize with the person getting sliced up. And maybe it's the speed of the violent deaths that doesn't allow me the time to imagine the physical pain of a scalpel slowly cutting through my flesh. And even stranger, when the top of my foot was sliced open by some falling glass a few years ago, and it was shooting up a geyser of blood, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

So when a scene like that comes up in one of my medical dramas, I usually look away in grimaced discomfort.

So here I am on a plane from San Jose to LA--only a 45-minute flight or so--after a day of barely eating anything, having gone to the gym earlier in the day, and having been thoroughly exhausted from not enough sleep the previous night. And I decided to watch this particular episode of House: "After Hours".

So, in this episode, House has to operate on his own leg in his bathtub to remove some tumors that began to grow there. (I'll spare you the convoluted reasons that he had to do it himself instead of going to the hospital.) I get to the part where he starts slicing his leg open, ever so carefully, and I begin to look away--to the airplane window. And then I have a brilliant thought. Why am I being so squeamish? I don't have to do anything except look; I'm not suffering any physical harm; the only thing happening is photons entering my eyes; who's in charge of my mind, then? I am, I decided, and I'm going to will myself to watch.

Big mistake.

Within a few minutes, I was feeling extremely nauseated, and I passed out. I, who had never so much as felt motion sickness, who had never thrown up from exercise or too much alcohol, suddenly felt like if I didn't scramble over the woman sitting next to me to get to the lavatory, I would hurl all over everybody around me. Luckily (!), I passed out.

When I awoke, maybe a few minutes later, maybe 30 minutes later, I was completely disoriented. I had no idea who I was, where I was, where I was going, what time it was, etc. It was as though I had suddenly come into being from non-consciousness. Unlike waking from sleep, where one transitions from one state of consciousness to another, it was as though I had no prior existence. It was frightening. It took every scrap of mental energy I could muster to stay calm and figure out what the hell was going on.

In retrospect, I was reminded of Ayn Rand's essay, "Philosophy: Who Needs It", where she describes the astronaut who lands on an alien world and has to ask himself basic metaphysical questions. That's how it felt: I had to infer, manually and explicitly, that it was night because it was dark outside and that I was on a plane because we were up in the air and the appearance of my surroundings (airplane windows, seats, etc). I had to figure out what had happened, and I remembered when I looked down at my tablet (which had paused in the middle of playback for some reason).

I was still severely nauseated, and I had to convince myself that soon, everything would return to a state of metaphysical normalcy. I even thought of it in those terms: "metaphysical normalcy".

The whole ordeal must have appeared to my seatmate like I had simply fallen asleep and then woken up, because when she saw that I had awoken, she engaged me in some light conversation, which was exactly the distraction that I needed to feel better.

It was, by far, the most intriguing and interesting experience of my life--at least with respect to phenomena related to consciousness. I still haven't re-watched that episode, but I'm intrigued to see if I can induce the experience again, despite how extremely unpleasant it was.

I think one of the things that made the experience so intriguing is the speed with which my consciousness shifted from full focus and attention to being completely switched off--and completely against the direction of even my strongest exertions of will.

The only mind-altering drugs I've ever used have been caffeine and alcohol (oh yeah, and sleep-deprivation), but my experience sounds like how people describe bad trips on some of the harder drugs, and I have to say that from a scientific curiosity, I'm fascinated.

But I think the best outcome from all this is that I learned that even when I'm gripped by fear and extreme disorientation, I'm able to remain calm, not panic, and bring myself back to reality. It’s also helped me to be more aware of what kind of things are purely mental/psychological, and that I should therefore consider as open to being controlled by my will power.

What an experience!