I want to get as much philosophical mileage as possible out of the colonoscopy I had a few days ago.
After all, I had to sacrifice eating solid food for almost two days. That isn't exactly a major ascetic accomplishment -- certainly not Gandhi'an -- but since I'm a vegetarian habituated to frequent food browsing, the colonoscopy prep period was a shock to my culinary system.
This wasn't the most interesting part of the procedure, though.
Just as with the colonoscopy I had two years ago (a benign polyp was found, and the prep wasn't perfect, so the doctor wanted me to have a repeat colonoscopy fairly soon), I found the effects of the sedative intriguing and thought-provoking.
After I came back to normal consciousness, of course. During the colonoscopy itself, I was pretty much dead to the world. Which raises the First Big Question.
If, as so many people believe, our core reality is spiritual rather than physical; if the essence of "me" is soul rather than body; if consciousness is separable from the brain and can function without it -- then why the heck did an intravenous drip of propofol almost instantly have a major effect on me?
Those avid meditators who think they are adept at mind control should test their supposed skill against propofol, or a similar psychoactive substance. Then they'll realize that the brain is what rules the consciousness roost, not our relatively puny willpower.
As I was getting prepped for the colonoscopy, a nurse told me they were using propofol now. I could expect a much quicker recovery time, with few if any side effects. Once the propofol drip is stopped, the patient wakes up almost instantly.
The name of the drug sounded sort of familiar.
It should have, because this was one of the drugs that was being used by Michael Jackson when he died. It's white appearance leads it to be called "milk of amnesia" (for the benefit of some foreign blog readers, milk of magnesia is an over-the-counter drug commonly used in this country).
Which brings up my Second Big Question.
What is real? OK, that's probably too big a question to address in a single blog post. So I'll narrow it a bit: if we can't trust our brains to clue us in to what truly exists, is it valid for humans to claim that it's possible to know "objective reality"?
I engaged in some minimal pre-colonoscopy philosophizing with the nurse after she told me that with the propofol, I wouldn't remember anything after the procedure was over.
"Yes, I understand that," I told her. "Here's what concerns me, though: I'm happy that I won't remember a potentially painful procedure, but I'd be even happier to know that during the colonoscopy I won't be feeling any pain. Meaning, does the propofol simply erase the memory of what happened, which might have been painful, or does it also eliminate pain during the actual procedure?"
The nurse didn't directly answer me.
Maybe she didn't know the answer to that question. Heck, maybe nobody does. It's sort of like the classic "if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
I'm not sure if I can explain why this question is so fascinating to me.
There's something profound and important here, but it's difficult to put a philosophical finger on it, because the issue is so elusive, so mysterious, so entwined with subtleties of awareness, consciousness, objectivity, subjectivity -- all sorts of deep stuff that people have been trying to get a grip on for millennia.
After being wheeled across a hall into the endoscopy room, I was positioned on my side so I was facing a large monitor that soon would be showing my innards. The doctor would be looking at it as he performed the colonoscopy.
Some pleasantries were exchanged with the doctor and the nurses. Then the nurse anesthesiologist said she was starting to inject the propofol. For about fifteen seconds I felt completely normal. I was mildly concerned that the sedative wasn't working.
Next thing I knew, the nurse was telling me "We're all done."
My instant intuitive reaction was disappointment. I was disturbed to be back in everyday reality. It had been a lot more pleasant wherever I'd been, consciousness wise. I sort of felt like I'd jumped into ice water after basking on a warm beach.
Doing some Googling on propofol before writing this post, I learned this sort of reaction is why the drug is illicitly used non-medically.
There are reports of self-administration of propofol for recreational purposes. Short-term effects include mild euphoria, hallucinations, and disinhibition. Long-term use has been reported to result in addiction.
I felt completely alert and awake. The only side effect, so far as I could tell, was that feeling of I wish I could have stayed in that pleasant propofol place longer. My first words to the nurse were, "I had some nice dreams. Mostly of having a colonoscopy, but with absolutely no pain, as if it was happening to someone else."
Later, after some reflection, I realized that calling what I experienced a "dream" wasn't entirely accurate.
Yes, it seemed like a dream at the time. But what are the chances that my brain would choose to dream about a colonoscopy, complete with thoughts of the endoscope wending its way here and there through my colon, while I was actually having an colonoscopy?
More likely is that I was minimally aware of what was going on, but the propofol created a feeling that it wasn't really happening to me.
However, seemingly there is another possibility. I could have been maximally aware of what was happening during the colonoscopy, including the discomfort of it, but the propofol took away virtually all of the memories I could have had of the procedure. Indeed, I found a clinical website that says:
Propofol has good amnesic, but only minimal analgesic, properties and is often combined with an analgesic.
In my case, I don't think it was. Which gets back to my pre-procedure question to the nurse. Will propofol make me forget what happened during the colonoscopy, or does it make the procedure painless?
I still don't know the answer. And the fact that I don't really care if I know the answer to that question is deeply interesting to me. I'm happy that the colonoscopy went so pleasantly for me. Like I said, I felt great while under the effect of propofol.
Well, more accurately, I felt great after I was awake and aware, aside from that fairly brief feeling of liking being asleep/sedated more than everyday reality. Who knows what I was feeling during the time I can't remember?
And who cares? Because apparently I wasn't there to know what I can't remember.
Again, there's something here that I can't really pin down. I have an intuition that propofol points to what enlightenment might be all about, assuming that this is an attainable state of consciousness -- which I'm skeptical of.
The experience of not being sure what I experienced during the colonoscopy is what I'm left with. Is this, though, so different from life in general? Can we ever be sure that what we remember is what actually happened? Or even that what seemingly is happening, really is?
So many questions. So few answers.
That's what makes life so fascinating: the mystery of it. My colonoscopy simply added to my habitual feeling of WTF? that permeates my everyday life. And it made me wonder: if I could largely put out of my mind what just happened, like propofol's amnesiac qualities did after the colonoscopy, would I be happier, by and large?
I tend to say, "yes." But tomorrow, who knows? I might have forgotten what I just said.