Memory Formation during General Anesthesia for Emergency Cesarean Sections

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Occurrence of explicit memory (i.e., conscious recall) has been reported especially after surgical procedures in which anesthesia is considered to be “light.” In addition, previous research has shown that implicit memory (e.g., improved memory test performance in absence of conscious recall) decreases with increasing hypnotic state. The current study investigated explicit and implicit memory during emergency cesarean sections with consistently light levels of hypnotic state.


Words were presented via headphones, and the bispectral index was recorded throughout surgery. Memory for the presented words was tested after recovery with a word-stem completion test. Using both parts of the process dissociation procedure allowed separation of explicit and implicit memory. In the “inclusion” part of the process dissociation procedure, patients are asked to complete word stems, if possible, with the corresponding words recalled from the intraoperative presentation. In the “exclusion” part, patients are instructed to avoid the words presented intraoperatively and to use other words instead. In the absence of recall, patients are asked to use the first word that comes to mind.


The mean bispectral index during word presentation was 76.3 (±3.0). On average, the 24 patients were able to make correct inclusion–exclusion decisions: In the inclusion part, hit rates (i.e., the probability of responding with a word presented during surgery) were higher than base rates (0.37 vs. 0.31), whereas in the exclusion part hit rates were lower (0.23 vs. 0.28). Importantly, the patients made these inclusion–exclusion decisions without being able to consciously recall the words presented during surgery.


This study shows that if words are presented at relatively light levels of anesthesia, patients are able to control their inclusion–exclusion decisions. This weak form of explicit memory can occur in the absence of conscious recall.

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