Human learning during general anaesthesia and surgery

R. I. Block, M. M. Ghoneim, S. T Sum Ping, M. A. Ali

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


To determine if learning occurs during general anaesthesia, 72 women undergoing surgery were given postoperative implicit memory tests in which performance could be influenced by auditory information presented during general anaesthesia. Two methods of anaesthesia were used: nitrous oxide and opioids (n = 24) or nitrous oxide and isoflurane (1, 1.3 and 1.5 MAC for n = 12, 24 and 12, respectively). Three tests showed some retention, apparently unconscious, of information presented during anaesthesia: in Behavioural Suggestions tests, patients who were instructed during anaesthesia to touch a particular body part (ear or nose) during later questioning touched the "correct" (suggested) body part longer than the "incorrect" (not suggested) body part during a postoperative interview on the day of surgery (means 2.5 vs 0.2 s); in Word Completion tests, patients shown a page containing the first three letters of words and asked to give words beginning with those letters gave more words from a list that had been played during anaesthesia than from a list not played (means 0.48 vs 0.27 words); in Nonsense Word tests, patients who were played different nonsense words between two and 16 times during anaesthesia preferred and guessed more accurately those that had been played most often (16 times) relative to those played less often in subsequent preference and recognition tests (means 56% vs 46% for preference and 62% vs 48% for recognition), while showing no such patterns in additional control tests. Learning did not vary with the method of anaesthesia, as might have been expected if learning was a monotonic function of brain depression. Some information processing functions of the brain evidently continue to function during adequate general anaesthesia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)170-178
Number of pages9
JournalBritish Journal of Anaesthesia
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1991


  • Anaesthesia: general, learning, memory
  • Complications: awareness, memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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