Saturday, August 30, 2008

Scalpel and the Soul

Just finished reading Scalpel and the Soul. Curiously, I found his book firmly ensconced in the New Age section of Borders, sitting alongside endless books by psychics, channelers, witches, diviners, etc., etc., etc... While a few might think it belongs there, I'm not so sure.

This is an autobiography. The author is an extremely accomplished neurosurgeon who revitalized his post-surgical career by creating a think tank dedicated to the development of new surgical devices. This was after he could no longer be a practicing surgeon (physical ailments). His being relegated to the New Age shelf is probably more of a marketing ploy that anything else.

Here's why I think it's a good book. Without trying to persuade the reader that he or she should believe what he does, he describes what he has seen and experienced, draws his own conclusions and leaves it at that. He doesn't ask the reader to believe him. Unlike the professional purveyors and debunkers, believers and skeptics, Hamilton's voice is refreshing and sincere, speaking without an a priori ideology or belief system. His beliefs have been formed by experience, not in a labratory, press room or ivory tower, but hands on, every day, and directly. As impressive as writers like Dawkins, Harris, Carrier and Hitchens are, these men have never actually opened up the human brain or sat and listened to very real people and their experiences. He listens. He aptly expresses his awe at the human body, the human mind and the human experience.

On the other side of the coin, he is a professional, trained to tinker in one of the most delicate and complex organs known. None of the New Age writers with whom he shares shelf space are remotely comparable or as qualified.

And what are his experiences? Consciousness, as he has observed it, is far more mysterious than the idle reassurances of new age psychics; and consciousness is far more mysterious than the controlled dissiction of the labratory. He confirms the odd experiences that we all have - the strange synchrocities, the inexplicable coincidences that can't be reproduced, the random but powerful experiences that defy logic, rational inquiry and even death itself. These things happen, says Hamilton, and they are observed by countless medical practitioners daily exposed to life and death.

"I've been sharing some of my own "rounds" with you. Not because they're so special. Just the opposite. Many of the spiritual experiences I've written about are not unique. They're common, everyday events you'd find in every medical center. And although I can't vouch for those of other surgeons, the majority of these experiences get overlooked -- dismissed."

In the final chapter of the book, he recalls the experience of a woman who underwent hypothermic arrest to remove a basilar tip aneurysm after a nearly lethal intracerebral hemorrhage. "I was not the only one asking to see [the patients records]. Other doctors, researchers, and experts on concsciousness were making similar requests as word of the case spread through the local medical community. Few of us, as doctors, suspected we might encounter something altogether new or unique.... We came with the purpose of explaining it away."

What they were investigating was the woman's memory of the surgury during hypothermic arrest. She could remember conversations as well as the the appearance and jewelry of the attending staff, along with OR procedures.

"The patient was reproducing practically word for word what had been said. Right down to the jewelry store and the waiter stumbling. No, she clearly recalled what had been said. There was no doubt about that....

From everything we currently know about how the brain works, it would be utterly impossible, from a biochemical, metabolic, and physiologic point of view, for this woman's brain to create a memory. To do so would require neurons to be activated and then be capable of encoding incoming electrical signals. This electrical activity would cause them to convert the voltage signals across the cell's surface membrane into specific changes in the transcription of messenger RNA - or mRNA - in each neuron. These changes in mRNA produce precise molecular changes, altering amino acid and peptide production within thousands of cells to make a lasting memory the brain can recall. In order to create a "Kodak moment of recollection," the brain must be very much alive and bristling with electrical activation, and intracellular metabolism must be "revved up" to hte maximum of each cell's capacity...

Yet we also had here unequivocal, scientific evidence that not only was her brain not working, it specifically demonstrated the absence of all cortical electrical activity when these conversations actually took place. So where could these brand-new memories have been created? Where had these memories gone? And where would such a place exist?"

The anesthesiologist's response? "No. No way! No, it's impossible."

The anesthesiologist's response seems to be the same of many individuals unwittingly constrained by their own belief systems.

And yet it happened.

The woman's memory's were investigated immediately after the surgery, before there was time to "contaminate" her recall.

By the way, this patient wasn't Pam Reynolds. This patient was killed a year later in a traffic accident. When the pathologist removed the brain, she dictated:

"A titanium clip is found in good position, securely around the neck of an old basilar aneurysm."

In the forward to the book, Andrew Weil, M.D., writes:

"Good science begins with uncontrolled observation. If observations do not fit the standard model of reality - especially if they do not fit - scientists should give them attention. They are the raw material from which we form hypotheses to be tested. "Anecdote," by the way, derives from the Greek and means "unpublished." In publishing these "stories from the spiritual side of surgery," Allan Hamilton gives us quite a lot to ponder.


Anonymous said...


What's your e-mail address? I want to talk with you.

You've written an excellent post, by the way. I'll check out the book.


upinVermont said...

Hi Steve,



Lose your "state of mind" and your E-Mail should get to me. You have to promise one thing though: no trash-talking Aaron. Keep me out of that relationship, even if it's non-existent. And don't ask me about my NDE. I'm done sharing it or discussing it. All done.