The Creepy, Insane, and Undeniably Romantic World of Cryonics
I went into it a skeptic—and I still don’t think it’ll work. And yet I’m sold.
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I'd expected to hear a lot of convincing arguments that would persuade me to sign up to have my body cryogenically frozen when I die, but proving that I'm more rational than Paris Hilton wasn't one of them.
"About ten years ago there was a rumor going around that she had signed up to have her body preserved, so my colleagues and I worried that perhaps Paris Hilton was more rational than us," says Anders Sandberg, a research fellow with the University of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute. Sandberg is an expert on human "enhancement" who himself is signed up to be frozen one day.
On one level, of course, doing anything because Paris Hilton pressured you into it is a really bad idea, Sandberg admits. "But we humans are emotional beings, so the fact that some of our Oxford academic pride was wounded really did spurn us to bite the bullet."
As insane, or perhaps creepy, as it sounds, hundreds of people in the US are 'frozen,' stored in stainless steel chambers at a cozy -196°C in liquid nitrogen. Their cases are checked daily while they're kept "in stasis," as cryonic believers call it, waiting until new medical technologies can cure or repair whatever ailed them, whether it be a heart attack, dementia, or perhaps even cancer. At the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale Arizona, 150 "patients" are frozen in time, and another 996 have signed up for the same fate.
The Cryonics Institute in Clinton township, Michigan holds a similar number—150 humans, plus more than 100 pets. "Maybe the idea of reviving people who are cryogenically frozen sounds far-fetched, but in my field, you know that you can bring back the dead all the time," says Dennis Kowalski, a director at the Cyronics Institute who works as a paramedic by day. "I've been able to take a lot of what I learned from emergency medicine and integrate it into cryonics. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Death is a process, and we simply slow that process down. I like to say that we provide the ambulance to the hospital of the future."
Moreover, Sandberg points out, there are thousands—if not millions—of people alive today who were once frozen sperm or egg cells, or frozen embryos. "In a sense, those people were cryonically frozen, and yet they are today alive," he says. Moving up in size, scientists demonstrated last year that embryonic rabbit kidneys could be frozen, thawed, and grown into full-sized and fully functional organs, capable of transplant into living animals.
In the wild, Canadian wood frogs annually freeze solid, thanks to special proteins in their blood that act as a natural antifreeze and prevent the formation of ice crystals that would cause cell damage—so it is theoretically possible for an entire body to be kept below freezing temperature and later revived. Cryonisists have already been replicating this strategy for decades: All preserved bodies are not technically "frozen," because all the blood is drained out the moment they legally die, and slowly replaced with a biological antifreeze (along with a cocktail of more than a dozen different drugs) that perfuses into the body and prevents ice crystals from forming and damaging cells. Hence why a body that would be a toasty 32°C can be kept at -196°C potentially indefinitely. But sperm, eggs, kidneys, and frogs are one thing. What about that most human of organs, the brain? There's no point in being revived if your memories, knowledge, and personality don't come with you.
Most of the arguments that suggest the structure of the brain could be preserved are based on theoretics and philosophy alone. But there are some shreds of scientific evidence that now hint it could be possible to keep the architecture of the brain intact. A 2015 study suggests that the networks of neurons in the brain just possibly could be preserved—in other words, the mind as well as the matter—when Alcor researchers showed that nematode worms could be frozen and revived with their memories (crude as they are) intact. "It's a small demonstration, but this gives us at least some circumstantial evidence that it's not totally crazy," Sandberg says.
For many cryonic enthusiasts, the importance of the brain is so paramount, they are happy to pay to only preserve their head. "Neuros," as they are known in the community, also pay a lower fee—at Alcor, they charge $200,000 for whole body preservation, but just $80,000 for the head alone. "I was attached to my body in my 30s, but the older and weaker it gets, the less enamored I am with it," says Linda Chamberlain, co-founder of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. "I want to come back with a glamorous, hot young body with lots of bells and whistles." Sandberg, too, is a 'neuro': "I'm a cheapskate and I'm a nerd, my body's not that great," he says.
Sandberg also sits on the board for the Brain Preservation Technology Prize, an award of $106,000 to be given to any team that can prove the faithful preservation of mouse or other animal brain in a manner that could be applied to our own brains. Going even further, many cryonic enthusiasts believe not in preserving the gooey innards of our skulls, but uploading all our thoughts and memories into a computer, and to live immortally as a "simulation." Not everyone is so keen to ditch their corpse, however. Kowalski has opted for the whole shebang: "Forgive the pun, but I'm attached to my body."
Sidebar, and this is a true story: My late grandfather's second wife (second of four, in case you were wondering) is an actress named Virginia Leith, whose biggest claim to fame is starring in the 1962 sci-fi film The Brain That Wouldn't Die . In what is now a cult classic—which you can see in full on YouTube—a young surgeon experimenting with transplant techniques decides to keep his girlfriend's severed head alive in an electrified petri dish after a car accident destroys her body. (Clearly, one of the first pop culture examples of a "neuro.") It is worth noting that, in the film, the head hates being kept alive just as a severed head, and she begs the mad doctor to "let" her die.
Which leads us to the obvious question: How can we be so sure that living forever would be pleasant? Even if daily life right now is an utter joy for you, how can we be so sure that it would be so fun if you lived for several hundred or a thousand years? The phrase "diminishing returns" comes to mind: As the days pile up, maybe your capacity to appreciate each one would lessen.
And would having more memories or knowledge really be pleasant? Proponents of brain uploading—or a step down, melding your biological body with technological augmentations—argue that cognition could be vastly improved in the future, and this can only be a good thing. "You will be able to think a million times faster," Chamberlain says. "If all thoughts are just biochemical processes, and electricity moves a million times faster in silicone than in biological tissue, we will think faster, have better memories and capabilities."
As somebody with an photographic memory, I don't think being able to remember more would necessarily be fun. Daily, I have to recall a thousand, a million things I don't need to—what shirt I wore to a beach rave in 2007, the names of chemical byproducts in the adenylyl cyclase pathway, the ear bones of a frog. And of course: every bad thing I've ever done, which rattle incessantly around my head in the dark hours of the night. I wish I remembered less, and I have no desire to remember more. Friends of mine with similar brains feel the same way. A hurricane of random memories makes natural sleep a laughable concept. Noteworthy that every drug I've ever gotten into with regularity—weed, alcohol, valium—has dampened my memory recall, and therefore delivered the elusive goal of rest. Ignorance might not be exactly "bliss," but there is a reason we forget things: ceaseless memories can be a burden.
Moreover, if your thinking is informed by hard biology and not theoretical computer science or abstract mathematic equations, some of the arguments of cryonic enthusiasts just fall apart upon closer inspection—especially the idea of just having your head preserved, or uploading your brain into a computer. For one, as Sandberg himself put it, "we humans are emotional beings." A computer could hold all your memories and knowledge—but without the endorphins, hormones, and neurotransmitters secreted by your brain and body's gooey "wetware" as they call it, you would never have the capacity to feel love, joy, pain, angst, hope, sorrow, or ecstasy. What would be the point in that? Even as a "neuro," if your head lived in isolation—say, akin to Richard Nixon on a robot body as Futurama envisions—your experience of life would be a shade of the real thing. Robo-Nixon, with only a head left from his wetware, probably wouldn't be able to feel rage.
Your brain is part of your body, and your body affects not just how you feel but also how you think. Chemicals from your visceral organs feed up to your head and vice versa: It's a conversation between the two. While the brain is "embodied," the body is also "embrained," so to speak. Consider the gut: The network of nerves that connect the gut to the brain—the enteric nervous system—is so integral to our thoughts and emotions, many scientists refer to it as "the second brain." Just reflect on the last time you had food poisoning, and you will recall that you probably felt more emotionally despondent than when suffering from, say, a cold or a rash. I can think of a hundred reasons to dismiss the claims of cryonisists and denigrate their optimism as spectacularly naive.
After all, in a world where Trump has his finger on the button, I'm not sure I want to live to see how the story ends. I envy the boomers who got to see the '60s and '70s, and who get to tap out before the shitstorm really takes off. And yet I can't think of any rational reason not to sign up. Sandberg, I have to admit, is correct: It is the rational choice. Yes, it probably won't work—but what if it does? Surely, you'd want the chance to live forever. (And hey, if immortality is as painful and tedious as some think, you still have the option to just die again.) Moreover, there is something undeniably romantic about the idea. If life is a gift, and one we take for granted, surely those who just love life so much that they never want to "leave the party," as Chamberlain puts it, perhaps epitomize the spirit of 'joie de vivre'. "Everybody thinks we're afraid of death— we are not!" Kowalski says. "We just love life."
Sandberg's cryonic tag (like a medi-alert bracelet), which is identical to his husband's, reads: "Till death do us part… for now." It's hard not to be moved by that on the deepest, most human level. The dedication that many in the community have to the cause is also deeply admirable, and profoundly humane. When her mother was on her death bed, Linda says, a dozen people stayed at her home, sleeping on her living room floor, keeping watch over her for 24 hours to ensure that they could get the process started the moment she was declared legally dead. "She was so impressed and moved that all these people she'd never even met—including a woman who was eight months pregnant—had taken a week off work to be there for her when the time came," Chamberlain says.
Even more moving, Chamberlain recalls the death of a dear friend of hers, who was learning to fly a helicopter and died in a horrible, fiery crash. "There was almost nothing left of his remains, but we did everything possible to get what fragments we could from the coroner—you don't know what technology could bring him back in the future," she says. "We will always do anything we can do—we will never just throw somebody out."
Chamberlain's husband "went into stasis" in 2012, and her mother (due to Chamberlain's convincing) in 1990. For both of them, she says, seeing them preserved and not shoved into a hole in the ground does indeed make the pain of the loss much more bearable—in her heart, it doesn't really feel like they're dead. In that regard, perhaps, it's just a high-tech and extremely expensive way to avoid facing an uncomfortable truth: All of us will die. But if humans all over the world have been concocting religions, rituals, and belief systems to help cope with the same sad truth, what is the harm in a small community of dedicated nerds devising their own rituals to derive the same comfort? Heck, think of all the gems we lost last year—it would be wonderful to think David Bowie and Carrie Fisher aren't gone forever.
I don't think it will work—and yet, I am sold. If and when I have $28,000 to spare (what the CI in Michigan charges for a whole body), I just might sign up. I agree with Sandberg, who told me, "Even if the chances of it working are only five or ten percent, that's good enough for me." Maybe humanity will sort out its shit. Maybe the future won't be a hot, impoverished, horrible mess. Well then. Wouldn't it be nice to see?
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