Are You “Unconscious” When Under Anesthesia?

Well, yes and no.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Anesthesia, some patients  can respond to verbal commands while under anesthesia. They speculate that “a third state of consciousness could exist.” In other words, there’s a state that’s neither consciousness or unconsciousness.

Here’s why…

Under anesthesia, one-third of patients in a study moved their finger if they were asked to. In other words, they were knocked out but were still able to respond to verbal suggestions.

Ya Think?

Nurse with anesthesia

It pains me (pun intended) to think that anesthesia has been in use for centuries, and modern anesthesia (with ether), since about 1846 — and they’re just figuring out that people can respond to suggestion when under anesthesia. And here’s what really bugs me.

We may have a group of people, standing around a person who’s very open to suggestion and who has no safeguards — and the medical folks have no idea that what they say could affect that person in important ways.

How’s That?

One model of hypnosis is that it relaxes the part of the mind that evaluates things. In other words, suggestion are accepted more easily because, in hypnosis, suggestions are not evaluated stringently against existing beliefs. That’s good because it’s often existing beliefs that are getting in the way of the client achieving their goals.

For instance, a client may have a belief that it’s really difficult to stop smoking. They then have a hard time really congruently wanting to stop, because they imagine all sorts of terrible penalties for stopping. When we get beliefs aligned with goals, it’s a lot easier for us to take action!

The Safeguards

In hypnosis, the conscious, evaluative mind is relaxed, but it’s not gone. If the hypnotist says something that goes against a client’s morals, typically the client will pop out of trance and be upset with the hypnotist. In other words, the clients’ powers of evaluation will come back on line. They weren’t gone in the first place, just in the background.

In the office, a reputable hypnotist will give suggestions to the client that the two of them have worked out together. It’s not the hypnotist imposing his or her will on the client. It’s the client imposing their will on themselves! The hypnotherapist is the guide.

Safeguards While Under Anesthesia?

When undergoing an operation, you’ve got a bunch of people around that don’t even seem to understand that a person may be suggestible even though they’re unconscious. And generally, they’re not trained in how to use language effectively for giving suggestions. Plus, there’s a good chance that, since the patient is unconscious, there’s no protective mechanism. They can’t activate the part of their mind that evaluates suggestion to reject a suggestion.

So, we’ve got a situation where…

  1. A patient may be extremely open to suggestion
  2. The people around are not aware the patient may be extremely open to suggestion
  3. The patient is unconscious and may have little ability to evaluate the suggestions they hear
  4. The medical personnel around likely have little or no training on how suggestions might affect a patient

Some Think It’s A Recipe For Disaster

In Dave Elman’s book, Hypnotherapy, he recounts instances where people (he believed) picked up negative suggestions during operations. Some of these people were having severe health consequences as a result. Elman was able to help them by regressing back to the operations and re-interpreting the suggestions.

One example was a suggestion that the patient “would never be the same.” The patient took that to mean that they would never be healthy again. The medical person simply meant they’d never have the problem again. Elman’s theory was that the patient took on “never be the same” as a negative suggestion. Once that suggestion was re-interpreted, Elman’s client recovered.

What Is The Truth

We don’t know what the truth is here. This was just one study (although there are others). We don’t know what went on in Dave Elman’s sessions and if his theories were accurate. But there’s enough evidence for me to figure out what I would recommend if you or a loved one has to undergo anesthesia. Here’s the drill (dental pun).

My Recommendations

  •  Wear headphones and listen to positive suggestions and music during your operation (clear it with your doctor). This will help block out any unwanted suggestions from medical folks.
  • Do some positive visualization/self-hypnosis before your surgery.
  • Do some positive visualization/self-hypnosis after your surgery.

If you’re a medical professional that’s going to be present during surgery, I have a different set of recommendations.

  1. Understand that what you say in the operating room might be taken as a suggestion.
  2. Learn how to phrase suggestions for maximum positive impact.
  3. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to a patient if they were awake.
  4. If you need your patient to respond physically in a certain way, tell them to do it. (“Stop the bleeding in your left arm, George.”) Repeat those types of suggestions several times to give them a chance to respond.
  5. Train others around you to do the same.


PS: I’m sure the authors of the study would have found that a greater percentage of patients would have responded to their suggestions if they would have done two things…

  1. Repeated their suggestions many times.
  2. Given the patients lots of time to respond.
  3. Used imagination in their suggestions (“It’s as if a helium balloon is tied to your finger, lifting up…, up…”).
  4. Created other scenarios that would naturally result in a finger moving (“You can remember what it feels like to have a fly land on your finger. Your finger twitches. Feel the fly now. Twitch your finger…”).

OK, so that’s more than two things. And those were just off the top of my head.

About The Author:

Keith Livingston is the main instructor for Hypnosis 101. Keith has been studying hypnosis since he was a boy and doing hypnosis & NLP training since 1997.

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  1. I am a certified hypnotherapist. In the past a few times with people under hypnosis at a time when they were in the operating room I saw what their spirit saw which was outside of their body watching them and their near-death experience. (They were completely anesthetized)
    Their spirits consciousness was in their subconscious memory. And I was seeing what their spirit saw.
    So it has become obvious to me that your spirits consciousness is in your subconscious mind.
    So an example of what you were saying. If during surgery the doctor would say this woman won’t last two weeks she probably will be dead within two weeks if her spirit accepted that. If not she’ll have a miraculous unexplained recovery.
    The government doesn’t state it this way but in remote viewing, which they spent between$ 25 and $30 million doing the teaching people to do your reporting back what their spirit saw and heard while out of the body where they had will it (their spirit) to go.

  2. Fred, please don’t talk like ‘the spirit’ is a real thing. This is 2014, we need to move away from such ‘spiritual’ beliefs. Intelligent people should not be believing in ghosts, spirits, Gods etc. I have no wish to insult you, but Hypnotherapy is about science, not beliefs about so called spirits, because it taints the validity of Hypnotherapists.

    1. Yes, Si, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. For me, I value science as much as religion in that it seeks to show the “truth” by asking to replicate experimental results and show solid evidence that can lead to proof. That, to me, is a very noble cause. But, science is not my only “religion.” To toss out the “spiritual” aspects of our lives is not good science as it would mean not taking all aspects of ourselves into account (intellectual, emotional, psychological, sociological, physical and spiritual). Of course, defining “spiritual” can be tricky and certainly there can be both positive as well as harmful aspects of this domain. But, at its best, there is no substitute for what it can give someone which is uniquely positive and special and that can be measured scientifically. As for Fred’s comment, it did give me pause as my one eyebrow raised. I don’t particularly like those kinds of things being stated for similar reasons to yours (not because there is no such thing as “spirit,” but because extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof). What Fred stated was “extraordinary” and not backed up scientifically and was stated as if it were established fact. But, I also simply heard this as his opinion and experience. I am quite skeptical about Fred’s report as it leaves too much unexplained or taken for granted as to what occurred. I’d like to see it studied scientifically so that it could be stated more meaningfully and I think what you and I find fault with is that it contains too little science and, therefore, gives our profession a bad name in that it shows a lack of standards, scrutiny and judgment. That’s my take. (Who would have thought this was going to take off in this direction?)

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