Rebooting the brain with anesthesia: Implications for Primal Therapy and evolution

Here are some paragraphs from a 2013 summary article of 105 studies entitled Evolution of consciousness: Phylogeny, ontogeny, and emergence from general anesthesia:

“The emergence of consciousness (from anesthesia) (as judged by the return of a response to command) was correlated primarily with activity of the brainstem (locus coeruleus), hypothalamus, thalamus, and anterior cingulate (medial prefrontal area). Surprisingly, there was limited neocortical involvement that correlated with this primitive form of consciousness.

In the sleep study, midline arousal structures of the thalamus and brainstem also recovered function well before cortical connectivity resumed. Thus, the core of human consciousness appears to be associated primarily with phylogenetically ancient structures mediating arousal and activated by primitive emotions, in conjunction with limited connectivity patterns in frontal–parietal networks.

The emergence from general anesthesia may be of particular interest to evolutionary biology, as it is observed clinically to progress from primitive homeostatic functions (such as breathing) to evidence of arousal (such as responsiveness to pain or eye opening) to consciousness of the environment (as evidenced by the ability to follow a command) to higher cognitive function.

Regarding ontogeny of H. sapiens, peripheral sensory receptors are thought to be present from 20 wk of gestation in utero. The developmental anlage of the thalamus is present from around day 22 or 23 postconception, and thalamocortical connections are thought to be formed by 26 wk of gestation. Around the same time of gestation (25–29 wk), electrical activity from the cerebral hemispheres shifts from an isolated to a more continuous pattern, with sleep–wake distinctions appreciable from 30 wk of gestation.

Thus, both the structural and functional prerequisites for consciousness are in place by the third trimester, with implications for the experience of pain during in utero or neonatal surgery.


I recently came out of anesthesia after being anesthetized for three hours during rotator cuff surgery. I felt pain, and went into a primal reliving of a painful memory.

I interpret the event as a reliving of my birth experience because of the following:

  • The beginning point was complete anesthetization as it was at my birth. My mother was completely anesthetized, so I, weighing less than one twentieth of her, was also completely anesthetized.
  • I felt a great urge and impulse to “get out” as it was at my birth. The attending nurse told me the next day that she called over another person to help her restrain me in the post-op chair.
  • I had a great need for oxygen and started breathing rapidly as it could have been at my birth. The nurse told me the next day that she was already giving me oxygen, and per the monitors, I didn’t need more oxygen.
  • I had to frequently “spit up” as it could have been at my birth. There was nothing in my current situation to cause me to expectorate.
  • My lower brain and limbic system were in control, as I thrashed, cried and moaned. I probably used primarily the same brain areas as what were the developed parts of my brain at birth.

The attending nurse told me the next day when I called her that she followed the established protocol, which was to get me out of the experience. She intentionally distracted me away from my pain. I was instructed to sit still, to think of some place pleasant, and to calm down.

I heard her as though she was at the other end of a tunnel at first, and then started to comply as I regained cognitive awareness.


I understand how such a powerful event could present a danger to a patient. It didn’t occur to me to tell the nurse until the next day that I had relevant history, that I have had relivings while in therapy, and wasn’t in the same danger that her regular patients may have been.

Even if I had said something, however:

  • Neither the anesthesiologist nor the attending nurse had a method of understanding how an evolutionary-determined sequential process – such as rebooting a person’s brain after prolonged anesthesia – may have therapeutic benefits.
  • They had no training to recognize aspects of neurobiologic therapeutic value in what was going on inside of me during this event, as a therapist in Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy has.
  • The default response per medical protocol would be to shut down a patient’s expressions of their feelings.

As a result, my experience of this event was pretty much the opposite of what happens in Primal Therapy. Although I didn’t feel harmed, my reliving wasn’t therapeutic, as previous relivings had been. Its progression through my levels of consciousness was purposely interrupted, and approached from a non-therapeutic direction.

Unlike my experience of coming out of anesthesia, Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy isn’t something the patient is thrown into and potentially overwhelmed by their feelings. It’s a gradual process where the patient is in control.

This summary study showed that existing science is already in alignment with the background of Primal Therapy, that the core of human consciousness is in the limbic system and lower brain structures. My anesthesia experience showed that medical professionals are familiar with at least the outward signs of a primal reliving.

The challenge seems to be how to use this complementary knowledge for people’s benefit. What can be done so that people aren’t burdened with the continuing adverse effects of traumas?

How can scientists and medical professionals get the eyes to see what’s in front of them?

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