I was in a coma for multiple weeks when I was a child. My parents and grandparents took turns watching over me, never leaving me alone. Time crawled by as they waited for a sign that I was getting better. As time passed the doctors became more hopeful. I moved a lot in the coma—they had to insert a feeding tube through my nose, and I kept trying to pull it out. The doctors would have to put me in restraints from time to time when I started doing that, but when I quieted down they would undo them. Each day must have felt like a week to the people who watched over me, but all of that time is absent from my memory. I don’t know what happened to my mind, but it must have gone somewhere.
Recent technological advances have enabled doctors to monitor brain activity, and they have observed that, in coma patients, “high-traffic hubs of brain activity are dark in coma patients while more quiet regions spring to life.” The precuneus, which deals with “consciousness and memory” becomes less active, and sense perceptions cease impacting the brain, opening up dormant networks that were otherwise obfuscated by the outside world (online.)
There are significant parallels to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which a group of prisoners are raised from childhood inside of a cave with their necks chained so they can’t look behind them. Behind them is a fire that casts their shadows upon the wall they look upon, and people are carrying statues and carved figures of animals back and forth along a wall, and these shadows are cast on the wall as well. This is a hypothetical situation to explain “the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world,” when the prisoners are unbound and led out of the cave, but in my case it happened in an almost literal manner.
We are all born outside of the cave, in the world constructed through our sense perceptions, but when I was thrust into a coma, or an extended state of unconsciousness, I was being pushed into the cave; I was being shackled so I could only see the blank wall. But I was not consciously observing the shadows, for I was unconscious. So I will need to revise Plato’s allegory with modern psychology to delve deeper into the coma.
Carl Jung studied under Sigmund Freud, who conceived of the unconscious “as the psychic strata formed by repressed wishes,” which have been piling up since birth, so this individual unconscious includes the innate aspects of my personality that has developed according to my genetic predispositions. But Jung took this theory of the unconscious a step further, seeing a shared unconscious that was constructed through cultural archetypes, which he saw as being passed down by way of myth (online).
Plato’s Cave happens to be a part of our cultural mythology, so my unconscious mind was thrust deep within, and the shadows that greeted me upon the wall were not the shadows of the world but shadows of the collective unconscious. And since I had no consciousness to get in the way, the shadows of the collective unconscious penetrated the veil of the unconscious with ease.
I hadn’t learned about mythology yet, so the shadows I saw on the wall were unknown to me, but, like the prisoners before me, I contemplated what they were and their shadows made an impression on me. I’d like to imagine my gradual ascent from the coma as the ascent of the prisoner from Plato’s Cave, being at first blinded by the light and unable to understand the reality of where I was. As I realized the shadowed world was not real I began climbing towards the mouth of the cave. What lay outside the cave was the world of sense perceptions, and I was fleeing the world populated only by the shadow of ideas.
The great mystery is how did the coma change me? Maybe I was born with a predisposition for being thoughtful, or perhaps it was my experience in the coma that caused it that, when I left the cave, I remained in the world of ideas (what Plato refers to as “the world of knowledge”) as I re-entered the world of sense perceptions.
After presenting the Allegory of the Cave, Plato wonders about those people who know what they want and how to get it, but who want only to fulfill their base desires. He wondered,
But what if there had been a circumcision of such natures in the days of their youth; and they had been severed from those sensual pleasures, such as eating and drinking, which, like leaden weights, were attached to them at their birth, and which drag them down and turn the vision of their souls upon the things that are below—if, I say, they had been released from these impediments and turned in the opposite direction, the very same faculty would have seen the truth as keenly as they see what their eyes are turned to now (Plato).
I had quite literally been “severed from those sensual pleasures,” having my nutrition supplied through a tube. So even if my nature had always been inclined towards seeing the world keenly, the coma still had a large effect on my development. We’ll see that play out, but once I came to consciousness and opened my eyes, I had to first let my eyes grow accustomed to the light (Plato).