Complexities of human memory: relevance to anaesthetic practice

Br J Anaesth. 2018 Jul;121(1):210-218. doi: 10.1016/j.bja.2018.03.008.


Mechanisms of anaesthetic actions on memory have largely focused on easily definable aspects of episodic memory, with emphasis on particular drug interactions on specific memory processes. However, the memory landscape of the perioperative experience includes many facets that lie outside these conceptualisations. These include patient recall of preoperative conversations, patient beliefs regarding allergies and unusual/uncommon anaesthetic events, memories of awareness, and particularly vivid dreams during anaesthesia. In no small part, memories are influenced by a patient's interpretations of events in light of their own belief systems. From the practitioner's point of view, relating fully to the patient's experience requires some framework of understanding. The purpose of this review is to highlight research over the previous decades on belief systems and their interactions with autobiographical memory, which organises episodic memories into a personally relevant narrative. As a result, memory is a set of continuously malleable processes, and is best described as a (re)constructive rather than photographic instantiation. Belief systems are separate but closely interacting processes with autobiographical memory. The interaction of a constantly evolving set of memories with belief systems can explain phenomena such as illusions, distortions, and (re)constructions of factitious events. How anaesthetics and our patient interactions influence these behaviours, and vice versa, will be important questions to explore and define with future research.

Keywords: anaesthesia; episodic; memory; mental recall.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia*
  • Anesthesiology*
  • Humans
  • Intraoperative Awareness / psychology
  • Memory / drug effects*
  • Memory, Episodic