Where Does Your Mind Go When Your Body Is Near Death? On Post-Operative Delirium, Near Death and The Brain (mild trigger warning)

In deep delirium after a catastrophic heart attack, my subconscious ran wild

On Postoperative Delirium

Source: Where Does Your Mind Go When Your Body Is Near Death?

I just came across this interesting read on Medium.com, where the author pretty vividly describes the effects of post-operative delirium that he suffered following a major heart attack and a stroke, landing him in an emergency surgery situation and ICU following the former.

Upon reading it closely and more importantly, carefully examining the interpretations of these experiences provided by one of Mr. Costello’s doctors, I can’t help but conclude that post-operative (partial and temporary) coma, delirium and near death experiences are but one and the same, mitigated by a still partially functional brain or parts of the brain being in the process of resuming “normal” functioning. Whatever share of “mind” is left or comes around will go at lengths in piecing those bits together to form a somewhat coherent story. Because that is what our brains do: They take whatever stimuli and events come in and process them in such a way that they form a coherent narrative, a story, if you will, which is apt to put the self, the mind, the ego at ease, and the former for mere reasons of healthy biological function in the context of navigating life in this world (for reference, see this and this and maybe this, too). You might call it a standard mode of operation for anyone  who is not in a “vegetative” state. So far, so conclusive (at least to me).

For the past years, I’ve logged hundreds of hours of reading about, listening to and watching videos of accounts of people who have had an NDE, experiences with paranormal phenomena or post-mortem communication with late relatives. (the related sources behind those links are just a very small sample of the vast amount of reports, articles and books I have read on the subject, including experiences from so-called “psychonauts”, who willingly underwent substance-induced altered states of consciousness. Again, the linked source just one of many sources). In addition to that, my own uncle shared some of his post-operative delirium after medically induced coma and both following a fairly dramatic emergency surgery and the former required to save his life after an early morning motorcycle accident with major impact on his left lower leg, which almost got severed and ultimately and unfortunately had to be amputated. I felt strongly reminded of his narrative when reading Mr. Costello’s account of what he went through following his emergency heart surgery.

While facts, locations, personae obviously differ for reasons of differing biographies, a pattern becomes visible to me which seems to hold true for both stories (and possibly others from other patients): There are actual bits and pieces of real events that patients remember and that seem to have occurred during brief periods of lucidity, while there are other “sensations” – for lack of a better word – that the mind seems to make up in order to “fill the gaps” between those real events and the supposed times of semi-consciousness or even temporary coma. To me it appears as if the “restarting” brain seemed to try and resume above mentioned “standard mode of operation” while still dealing with the effects of physical trauma and plain physical malfunctioning as a result from the surgery. (And in the words of Dr. Page in above linked article, “It is the physical trauma of major surgery, rather than the effect of anesthetics or sedatives, that triggers delirium.”)

When holding my own “NDE” at age four against those examples, interpreting it in terms of above sketched hypothesis becomes a bit more difficult as the nature of it neither matches the bulk of – largely positive -NDEs nor the pattern of post-surgery delirium. I guess, the most likely explanation would be an adverse reaction to anesthesia being used at the time. (when carefully examining the medical use of nitrious oxide on wikipedia as well as its use for recreational purposes, I can’t help but conclude that the dissociative effects of this substance induced the experience I had after inhaling it and after having it forced on my face by the nurses preparing me for surgery; very unfortunately I have never been able to firmly establish exactly which anesthetic had been used on me at the time. Zeroing in on it by way of excluding those anesthetics no longer or not yet in use, there is strong indication pointing to nitrious oxide vs. ether or chloroform, both of which are unlikely to still have been medical practice at the time of my surgery). But I guess, I’ve started to digress here.

Bottomline: From carefully reading, hearing, studying all accounts of non-standard states of consciousness, either induced by way of a (psychedelic, anesthetic) substance or by traumatic events, I am personally arriving at the conclusion that they all are attempts of the brain in coping with major trauma to the body and more specifically a major impact on its nervous system. For reasons of my left brain hemisphere obviously dominating over the right one and as a result being the constantly questioning type, all these accounts of “spiritual realms” never sat right with me. Moreoever, I’m a strong proponent of Occam’s razor and following that principle, even if there was a spiritual realm of some kind, those “explanations” never gave me much clue on the pragmatic side of things and pertaining to questions of how best navigating day to day life and integrating those extreme experiences undergone so early into my life. Seeing them for what they most likely turn out to be, i.e. the effects of a substance on my perception, feels like the best way of eventually making sense of a very non-ordinary state of consciousness. Humor me, if so inclined….

Update/P.S.: I think this concludes my “spiritual quest” as in: Call off the search.

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