Cryonics, Death

Why is cryonics so unpopular?

In his 1998 essay “The Failure of the Cryonics Movement” (part 1, part 2), Saul Kent stresses that cryonics has remained so unpopular because nobody thinks it will work. One observable implication of this view is that we would expect to see broader acceptance of cryonics as its technical feasibility increases. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that this is the case. During its existence a number of research and technical breakthroughs have been achieved in areas such as normothermic and hypothermic resuscitation, cryopreservation, and long term care, that should strengthen the case that cryonics will work. In particular, the change from conventional cryopreservation to vitrification should have appealed to critics who questioned whether the neurological basis of identity can survive freezing. But the transition to vitrification did not have any noticeable effects on membership growth at Alcor, or later at the Cryonics Institute. In 2007, researchers at 21st Century Medicine announced that they were able to observe long-term potentiation (LTP) in vitrified brain slices, further supporting the claim that current cryonics procedures should be able to preserve the physical basis of memory.

The view that acceptance of cryonics is being held back by the perception that it is not technically feasible is hard to reconcile with the observation that increased technical progress in cryonics does not translate into rapid membership growth. It is also hard to reconcile with the fact that millions of people hold on to views that cannot be falsified with any scientific method whatsoever. Perhaps there is a scientific tipping point beyond which people will sign up in droves for cryonics. For example, some cryonics activists argue that demonstration of reversible vitrification of a small animal will have such an effect. This may or may not be the case, but it still leaves the puzzle unresolved as to why cryonics organizations were not swamped with membership requests after publishing electron micrographs that demonstrated excellent ultrastructural preservation of brain tissue after vitrification.

There are many myths about cryonics, but in light of the fact that the costs of researching these issues pales in comparison with the expected rewards of finding a treatment to a terminal illness (some cryonics advocates even propose that cryonics will enable humans to become immortal), it is hard to understand why these myths persist and the total number of cryonics members and patients is currently less than 2000.

Although it can be argued that existing cryonics organizations do not do a very good job of explaining the technical feasibility of cryonics, this seems to be unlikely. If making cryonics arrangements is so appealing there would be no shortage of other people repacking the message and relaying it to others. It is also well known that there are a considerable number of people who find the technical feasibility of cryonics persuasive, have the financial resources, and even support it as a form of medical care, but have not made cryonics arrangements for themselves or their families. It is clear that something else is holding such people back from making cryonics arrangements.

Another explanation that has been offered is that people do not want to reflect on their own mortality. There seems to be some truth to this as far as casual observations of raising the issue of death is concerned. When people are young they generally do not think about death in personal terms in such a way as to induce them to make cryonics arrangements, and when they are old they may no longer be in a state to do so, or lack the financial resources. But we know that people do routinely reflect on their own mortality and make arrangements for their family in the form of life insurance and executing a living will.

One solution to the “death” issue is to present cryonics as a form of long term critical care medicine. Instead of presenting cryonics as the science of freezing “dead” people in the hope of future revival, cryonics can be presented as a branch of medicine that employs metabolic arrest to allow critically ill patients to reach a time when effective treatment is available to treat their disease. Presenting cryonics as a form of critical care medicine does not only stress the fact that human cryopreservation is a logical extension of conventional medicine, it should also minimize religious objections concerning “raising the dead,” “immortality,” and “playing God.” Just like mainstream religion has embraced modern medicine, so it can embrace cryonics as a novel but logical extension of it.

We know that terminally ill people are often willing to go to great lengths, and accept considerable uncertainty of outcome (even risks), to find a cure for their disease or to extend their life. In this sense, the lack of complete certainty of resuscitation of cryonics patients should not present a formidable obstacle to the acceptance of human cryopreservation. Perhaps the more fundamental difference between conventional medicine and cryonics is the duration of care. Although mainstream medicine already utilizes the benefits of cold temperatures to safely induce circulatory arrest in patients who need to undergo complex heart or brain surgery, these periods of unconscious depressed metabolism routinely take minutes, not hundreds of years. In this sense, contemporary cryonics is intrinsically linked to a far and unknown future.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for people in making cryonics arrangements is that they realize that cryonics implies the potential loss of everything that gives meaning to their existing lives. They may be resuscitated in an unknown world without their family, friends, home, personal belongings, and savings. Sterling Blake mentions the writer Ray Bradbury who expressed interest in any chance to see the future. But “thinking about cryonics made him realize that he would be torn away from everything he loved. What would the future be worth without his wife, his children, his friends?” (Sterling Blake, “A Roll of the Ice: Cryonics as a Gamble” in Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy). And we know what happened with Arthur C. Clark, who strongly believed in the technical feasibility of cryonics.

Of course, this is more likely in a world where cryonics is not very popular, but it reveals a serious problem within the fabric of cryonics marketing. An important condition for most people to accept cryonics is that they will be restored to good health with everything they know and care for. But such a scenario is most likely to occur if a substantial number of people already have made cryonics arrangements and created an infrastructure to minimize loss and alienation.

There is no magic bullet to “selling” cryonics, but presenting cryonics as a form of medicine, encouraging community building, facilitating legal instruments to retain financial assets during long term care, and assisting families in making cryonics decisions may lessen the psychological barrier to choose cryonics. One sense in which the technical feasibility of cryonics and its acceptance are related is that advances in the science of cryopreservation and development of advanced cell repair technologies will reduce the time between start of long term care and resuscitation. If the duration of care presents a formidable obstacle to signing up for cryonics, supporting progress in the science of cryonics may lead to broader acceptance of the idea after all.