A Brace of Articles on Cryonics

I can only speculate as to why a set of better than usual articles on the non-profit cryonics industry have appeared in various popular press publications recently. I pointed out one of them yesterday, and here I'll offer links to another two. While attention from the press tends to come and go in cycles, the past decade, and especially the last few years, has seen a considerable improvement in the quality and tenor of coverage: popular science articles on cryonics providers and human interest pieces on the community of supporters and advocates. This is probably due to a number of factors, among which are the slow burn of low-key publicity efforts on the part of the longer-standing providers such as Alcor and the Cryonics Institute, and the layering of credibility in the journalism community that comes with repeated exposure. I would say, however, that the most important contribution comes from progress in the sciences, firstly the accumulation of better evidence to demonstrate preservation of the fine neural structure thought to encode the data of the mind, and secondly from growing interest in the use of reversible vitrification to improve the industry of tissue engineering and organ transplantation.

Cryonics as an industry offers indefinite low-temperature storage of at least your brain immediately following clinical death. For so long as the data of the mind is preserved, the possibility exists for restoration in a future with more capable technology. Some form of fairly mature molecular nanotechnology and near complete control of cellular biochemistry will be needed, and at the present pace of progress it might take a lifetime to get from here to the point at which revival is a realistic but very expensive process, and another few decades to make it cheap enough that revival is likely. The odds of success for this venture are unknown, depending on many factors that are entirely out of of the control of any one individual, but the odds offered by all of the other presently available end of life choices are zero. Like every effort to extend healthy life, it is all about moving the odds in the right direction, not about certainties.

Vitrification in low-temperature storage, the preservation method presently used by cryonics providers, is attained through the use of cryoprotectant compounds. Cryoprotectants are infused into tissues during cooling, and the ice crystal formation that characterizes straight freezing is minimized in the glass-like vitrified result. The difference is enormous. At this point, researchers have shown that vitrified and restored nematode worms appear to retain memory, and have produced forms of vitrification that result in excellent preservation of fine structure. Reversible vitrification has been carried out in a rabbit kidney, with following transplantation and function for a period of time. A number of research groups are investigating reversible vitrification as a way to greatly improve the logistics of tissue engineered or donated organs: if an organ can be stored indefinitely, then many of the costs and complications associated with these fields vanish. Given all of this, it becomes harder for journalists to reject the cryonics industry out of hand. That doesn't stop them engaging in the traditional practice of finding ridiculous and speculative objections in other places, of course:

If cryonics suddenly worked, we'd need to face the fallout

Right now, in three facilities in the US and Russia, there are around 300 people teetering on the cusp of oblivion. They exist in a state of deep cooling called cryopreservation, and entered their chilly slumber after their hearts had stopped beating. Before undergoing true cell death, the tissues of their brains were suspended using an ice-free process called vitrification. All are legally deceased, but if they could they speak, they would likely argue that their remains do not constitute dead bodies at all. Instead, in a sense, they are just unconscious. No-one knows if it's possible to revive these people, but more and more of the living seem to believe that uncertainty is better than the alternative. Around 1,250 people who are still legally alive are on cryonics waiting lists, and new facilities are opening in Oregon, Australia and Europe soon. "We have a saying in cryonics: being frozen is the second worst thing that can happen to you. There's no guarantee you'll be able to be brought back, but there is a guarantee that if you get buried or cremated, you'll never find out."

To the uninitiated, cryonics might seem the stuff of are slowly chipping away at the possibility of revival. Most recently, a team succeeded at thawing a previously vitrified rabbit brain. Even after several weeks of storage, the synapses that are thought to be crucial for brain function were intact. While a thawed out rabbit brain does not a fully revitalised person make, some believe that cryogenic revival might someday be as commonplace as treating a case of the flu or mending a broken arm. "This is really not so earth-shattering or philosophically weird as you might think. It's just medicine - another form of healthcare that helps people who are seriously sick. Once you get your head around that, it's much less scary."

But assuming cryonics does wind up working, for the newly reborn citizens of the past there would be more to their stories than simply opening their eyes and declaring a happy ending. Instead, they would immediately face the challenge of rebuilding their lives as strangers in a strange land. But even if a cryogenically preserved person was on his or her own, that would necessarily be a deal breaker for eventually attaining happiness. "If you were on an airplane today with all your family and friends and it crashed and you're the only survivor, would you commit suicide? Or would you go out and put your life back together, and make new family and friends? Besides, it doesn't make sense that they'd take the time to revive people into some dystopian, backward future. You can't have the technology to wake people up and not have the technology to do a bunch of other great things, like provide abundance to the population."

What Exactly Is Life After Death if You're a Cryonicist?

While there's plenty to debate about life after death, what about life after a deep-freeze at minus 196 Celsius? For many people in the cryonics community, this is a very serious and expensive question, one that begins with the definition of death itself. The preservation process begins as soon as possible after "legal death" - the point when a person can no longer be resuscitated by current technology - is announced, and a person can pick to have only his or her brain frozen or the entire body. Many cryonicists, according to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, believe that a person's memory, identity, and personality remain stored inside the brain even after a human being is legally declared dead. They equate the brain to a hard drive in a computer - simply because you turn off a computer doesn't mean the hard drive is wiped out. They hope in the future the medical community can figure out a way to turn back on whatever caused the body to die so that the mind can once again live.

For a decade, Murray Ballard spent time in the United States, the United Kingdom, and around Europe and Russia meeting with individuals and institutions in the cryonics community. Ballard said he initially became hung up on the technical aspects of cryonics and photographed it accordingly, but the more people he met, the more he realized the story was really about the individuals who are part of the community and their interest in perhaps one day being brought back to life. Most of the people he met thought of cryonics as an adventure. He said they tend to shy away from the word faith, possibly because of religious undertones, and they're aware that the odds of this working are quite slim. However, they say, it still beats the alternative. "You can't argue with the fact that you're better off being cryogenically preserved than buried or cremated. In that case you'll never be brought back to life. It's a stopgap, a way of just doing the best that we can at the moment. They can't wait for cryonics to be an outdated thing."


The song remains the same, what is personal identity? When we fall asleep and then wake up we are not the same physically yet we feel so because of memory.Why do amnesiacs and other brain impaired individuals struggle with identity? Awareness of identity comes through consciousness and memory.If your connectome and physical body be replicated with enough resolution would you not feel like the same person? Perhaps a copy will never be truly identical but we change instant by instant so we are never the same either. Continuity comes through memory. Seems like identity is emergent. Death scares us only because we don't wake up. If quality is more important than quantity then what does it matter about copy.

Posted by: george at April 28th, 2016 11:39 PM

Of course what I posted is invalid if soul exists objectively.

Posted by: george at April 28th, 2016 11:47 PM

I think this is one of those technologies that will burst into the public's attention when the first mouse is vitrified and then revived months later (if this is possible).

I find myself in the "I'll believe it when I see it camp with cryonics". I just imagine that there is some technical distance and difficulty between preserving an organ and preserving a whole animal.

Posted by: Jim at April 29th, 2016 4:46 AM

@Jim: If all people thought that way, cryonics would never advance, because there would be no funding.

Posted by: Antonio at April 29th, 2016 5:25 AM

Whether souls exist does not matter. I choose physical preservation to the endless uncertainty of spiritual hypothesising. If the spiritual stuff is true, then physical preservation will do no harm anyways. If it is not, then at least I will be able to wake up in the future. So, let us continue our eternal spiritual theorising. Let us at the same time not let that get into the way of a safety back-up.

Posted by: Be Careful What You Wish For at May 2nd, 2016 7:44 AM

The spiritual stuff is childish and stupid. The most basic facts of neuroscience disprove it. You can receive a blow in your head an lose a very specific part of your mind, or big parts of it. You can have your two brain hemispheres disconnected and they can think independently. You can see your mental activity in your brain with fMRI, etc. There is no such thing as a human mind separated from its body. A person must have a very serious cognitive dissonance or be very ignorant of physiology to think the opposite.

Posted by: Antonio at May 2nd, 2016 1:32 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.