Is Complete Unconsciousness Really a Thing?

by Carlo Carrubba

You lay down in your soft bed, you turn off the light on your bedside, wish your mom and dad goodnight, and as they walk out of the room, boom, you go out like a lightbulb.

So, are you unconscious?

Many people would respond yes to this question. But you may be interested in learning that sleep is not unconsciousness. When one is asleep, he or she may be aroused if the stimuli are strong enough, like your alarm clock ringing, or your dog barking. On the other hand, if one is unconscious, the brain is unable to respond to the stimuli around it.

But, unconsciousness does not work by “switching off the brain”. It occurs when the processes in the brain are in some way isolated, or in other words, parts of the brain that usually talk to each other get out of sync when the brain is unconscious. For example, when someone is sedated for surgery, anesthesia works to isolate the processes in the brain that keep you awake, like pain, or vision, so that you “fall unconscious”. In the early stages of sedation, it is shown that information and communication in the brain is massively slowed. Another interesting thing that happens is that areas of the brain tighten amongst themselves, almost “closing the gates to information”. This tightening impairs connectedness with distant areas of the brain.

Another interesting fact is that, even if someone is unresponsive based on behavior, they may be fully conscious.

This was shown in a study where 15 people were sedated and put in a “vegetative state” and 15 people were kept minimally conscious. It was recorded that minimally conscious patients do register pain more actively than those in a “vegetative state”.

The study mentioned above leads me to conclude that even if you are in a completely vegetative state, your brain still registers pain, just at a reduced pace.

This means that full unconsciousness is not really a thing.


Categories: Editorials

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