Henri Laborit feels our pain

In her new book Anaesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness, Australian journalist Kate Cole-Adams describes several episodes in which patients have been anaesthetised before undergoing surgery yet afterwards shown signs of having recalled parts of what happened to them during the operation, while they were supposedly unconscious.

As the book’s title suggests, what may seem a simple matter of administering a cocktail of drugs to render a patient senseless before submitting them to an otherwise agonising surgery has complexities that stretch well beyond a medical procedure. Indeed, it goes right to the root of what it is that makes us alive: what is consciousness?

Reviewing the book in a recent edition of The New Yorker magazine, Joshua Rothman says, “The root of the problem is that no one understands why we are conscious. If you don’t know why the sun comes up, it’s hard to say why it goes down.”

Of all the explorers investigating conceptions of consciousness, few have ventured further afield than Henri Laborit.

Laborit was born to French parents in Hanoi in Vietnam, which was then part of French Indochina, on 21 November 1914. His father was a physician and colonial officer, and Henri was educated in France.

Swiss author Edward Kunz, writing in the March 2014 edition of the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, says Laborit passed the exams of the School of Naval Medicine in Bordeaux, then served as a Navy physician. “But, eager for better recognition, he turned to surgery. His surgical work confronted him with patients dying during or after operations, and this motivated his research in anesthesiology.”

Kunz says Laborit made many significant discoveries in physiology and pharmacology and “stands among the founders of modern anesthesiology and neuropsychophamacology”.

In the 1950s, Laborit worked on the creation of several consciousness-altering pharmaceutical products, including the anti-psychotic chlorpromazine (often marketed as Thorazine or Largacti), the antidepressant minaprine, and the sedative clomethiazole.

“He also put forward a theory regarding the necessity of counteracting the negative consequences of defense mechanisms during anaesthesia or behavioural inhibition,” Kunz says. “The scope of his work covers neurophysiology, pharmacology, psychiatry, and psychosomatics.”

201128 laborit 1966
Laborit in his laboratory in Hospital Boucicaut,
Paris, in 1966. Credit: Keystone-France / Gamma-Rapho
via Getty Images

Jean-Marie Desmonts, author of the 2004 book Yesterday’s Anaesthesia, says Laborit developed a technique of combining a variety of weaker anaesthetics that would “create the conditions necessary to induce a state of narcosis sufficiently profound for major surgery”.

Laborit performed extensive studies on anaesthetics, and developed or modified techniques that both found favour and aroused anger among surgeons.

One such method, Desmonts says, involved inducing what Laborit called “artificial hibernation” – lowering a patient’s body temperature and slowing the vegetative, or automatic, nervous system with a variety of drugs.

He also advocated lowering the patient’s metabolic rate “to place the neuro-vegetative system in the deepest possible state of rest, to prevent surgical shock”.

Kunz says Laborit believed patients died from shock during operations because of “nonspecific responses to stressors”, which were “in themselves toxic to the body”.

“He wanted to shut down the stress response, since he saw that patients were killed by the endogenous mechanisms supposed to protect them from shock.”

Laborit’s explorations into anesthesiology led him deeper into studies of human consciousness, to the extent that in a 2014 paper published in Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies John O’Carroll from Australia’s Charles Sturt University refers to Laborit as “the French cyberneticist renowned for his injection of cybernetic theory into urban cultural analysis”.

O’Carroll says Laborit’s “greatest achievement” was “to restore biology to cybernetics, to make his audience not only see, but actually believe, that cybernetics stood in a tradition that began in the 19th century, and that the name could be freely used in biological and social analysis”.

As well as being a diverse thinker, Laborit was prolific. He published more than 600 papers and articles, all in French, and more than a dozen books, only two of which have been translated into English.

He published books on physiology and pharmacology, ethology and societal issues, Kunz says, and insisted that “a better understanding of the cerebral determinants of human behaviours, such as dominance and aggression, is a necessary condition for any favourable evolution of human societies”.

Laborit died in Paris on 18 May 1995.

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