Cognitive unbinding: a neuroscientific paradigm of general anesthesia and related states of unconsciousness

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Dec;37(10 Pt 2):2751-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.09.009. Epub 2013 Sep 26.


"Cognitive unbinding" refers to the impaired synthesis of specialized cognitive activities in the brain and has been proposed as a mechanistic paradigm of unconsciousness. This article draws on recent neuroscientific data to revisit the tenets and predictions of cognitive unbinding, using general anesthesia as a representative state of unconsciousness. Current evidence from neuroimaging and neurophysiology supports the proposition that cognitive unbinding is a parsimonious explanation for the direct mechanism (or "proximate cause") of anesthetic-induced unconsciousness across multiple drug classes. The relevance of cognitive unbinding to sleep, disorders of consciousness, and psychological processes is also explored. It is concluded that cognitive unbinding is a viable neuroscientific framework for unconscious processes across the fields of anesthesiology, sleep neurobiology, neurology and psychoanalysis.

Keywords: Anesthesia; Cognitive binding; Cognitive unbinding; Consciousness; Information integration; Psychoanalysis; Sleep; Unconsciousness; Unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia, General / adverse effects*
  • Cognition Disorders / chemically induced*
  • Humans
  • Neurosciences*
  • Unconsciousness / chemically induced*