Scholarly article on topic 'The Aesthetics of Anaesthetics'

The Aesthetics of Anaesthetics Academic research paper on "Art (arts, history of arts, performing arts, music)"

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Academic research paper on topic "The Aesthetics of Anaesthetics"

Perception, 1979, volume 8, pages 123-124


The aesthetics of anaesthetics

We take 'aesthetic' to imply refined taste in matters of art or design; but this is not its original meaning, and indeed the present meaning arose from a mistaken German translation from Greek texts, by Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762) who was Professor of Philosophy at Frankfort on the Oder and wrote the Aesthetica (1750-1758), which influenced Kant. Baumgarten's Metaphysica (1739) developed Johann Wolff's (1679-1754) rationalist philosophy, which was largely derived from Leibniz but was more popular as it was easier to understand. It seems that the original mistake of Baumgarten together with the influence of his rationalism as derived through Wolff from Leibniz was responsible for our use of 'aesthetic'. This dates in English from 1830; 'anaesthesia' from 1721; and 'anaesthetics' from 1847, since when we might take 'anaesthetic' to mean what one sometimes feels after a dose of modern art.

It is surely remarkable that one can thumb through the indices of books on psychology, neurology, and philosophy of mind, and find no reference to anaesthesia. What is so odd is that anaesthetics have been so little used for experiments on consciousness, and attempting to relate consciousness to brain function and perhaps localise it.

If physics flowered in the seventeenth century from applying Francis Bacon's principles of inductive enquiry (.Novum Organon 1620) for establishing necessary and sufficient conditions—why were not the same logical tools and experimental procedures applied to study mind and brain? Perhaps only now are adequate techniques becoming available for switching consciousness off and on and relating changes of consciousness to brain states.

Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) carried out his famous experiments on breathing nitrous oxide in a house still standing in Dowry Square in Bristol, a short walk from our laboratory. He published the results in 1800, and his friend the poet Robert Southey, among others, described the strange experiences and changes of behaviour, including the tendency to laugh. Nitrous oxide was (apart from alcohol: hence the importance of rum to the Navy) the first anaesthetic. Davy became, of course, a highly successful Director of the Royal Institution, following its founder Rumford, and applied his knowledge of gases to invent the safety lamp for miners. (James Watt's second son, Gregory Watt, lodged with Humphrey Davy's mother for a time at Penzance where Davy was born, and Watt's engines were used for draining mines, so there are links here—and perhaps wherever one looks!) Davy made it a practice to smell quantities of gases during his experiments, with cumulatively disastrous results. On one occasion he breathed four quarts of hydrogen and on another tried to breathe pure carbon dioxide and knocked himself out.

The importance of gases and air in the history of psychology has perhaps never been adequately described. The word 'gas' descends from the Greek 'Chaos', which was the region beyond physical law (regarded by the Greeks as being like legal laws decreed and enforced by the gods) so Chaos and air were beyond understanding: until the Second Law was formulated in the 1870s by Ludwig Boltzmann and independently by Clerk Maxwell. Then chaos became not only respectable but its description has been called the most fundamental law in the whole of physics. It turned the gods into statisticians, showed how steam engines could be made efficient, as well as providing, later, a model for gaining and losing information.


Perhaps Humphrey Davy thought he was breating in Chaos: at any rate he was one of the first to appreciate that heat is random motion.

The Editor tried out a somewhat Davy-type experiment recently, by receiving controlled rates of the anaesthetic Ketamine and trying out various observations. I found that sensations were lost in a sequence. First went pain. Vision became highly unstable; but, curiously, Julesz dot stereograms remained in full stereo depth in spite of amazing 'jazziness', and instability with eye movements. There was marked synaesthesia. Upon being asked by friend John Harris to identify a toothbrush by touch—touch remained though pain was absent—I found myself in an incredibly vivid tapestry of brilliant coloured squares in violent motion. It seemed that normal inhibitory mechanisms isolating the senses broke down: one became and experienced at first hand Chaos.

How about much more research into anaesthesia? Why do we still know so little two hundred years after the key was found? Can we expect to interpret perceptual neural activity in anaesthetised animals before we have opened this door in ourselves?

R L Gregory