In Defense of Cryonics

I am back! A number of unexpected obligations have slowed my progress in my creative endeavors, but I am finally back in a position where I can re-dedicate myself to this blog.

This post will be the first in a series on cryonics, the science of using low temperatures to preserve human life with the aim of future revival. (I had some other posts planned, and I will return to those in due course.) The ethical, legal, and metaphysical issues involved in cryonics are all complex, but the essence of the issue is quite simple.  Cryonics should be thought of under the umbrella of emergency medicine, or, a little more generally, of life-extension technology. It offers some chance, though of no course no guarantee, of an extended lifespan at some point in the future when superior technology becomes available. When it is conceptualized in this way, as I think it should be, the value of cryonics to those who want to live should be just as obvious as the value of chemotherapy or organ transplants to those who need them.

There are many myths and misconceptions about cryonics out there, so I know that my view will meet with some skepticism, hostility, and even disgust. If that is your initial reaction, stick with me. Even if I can’t persuade you that you should choose cryonics for yourself—that is, after all, a personal decision which depends on your own circumstances and priorities—I hope you will at least come to appreciate the perspective of the thousands of individuals who have chosen the procedure.

In this first post, I offer a simple argument for cryonics based on an analogy between cryonics and therapeutic hypothermia.

Generally speaking, there is a period of time after cardiac arrest before the brain and other tissues become irreversibly damaged. This is why CPR is possible. If blood circulation can be quickly restored, then a person that is pronounced dead can be brought back to life. The main obstacle is ischemia. The cells throughout our body begin to die as soon as the supply of new blood is cut off. But death is not immediate, and as long as the brain is not dead, there is hope.

Under normal circumstances, it would take tremendous luck to revive a patient even minutes after cardiac arrest. Nevertheless, I think it is important to note that this does happen and, when it does, we celebrate it.

Now introduce colder temperatures, which slow down the metabolism and thereby slow down the process of ischemic damage. In one remarkable case, a Swedish woman named Anna Bagenholm was pulled from ice cold water with no heartbeat and revived more than two hours later when doctors warmed up and recirculated her blood. Though she woke up in bad shape, she is reported to have made an almost full recovery within ten years.

Anna Bagenholm’s revival and recovery should be celebrated. “I think it’s amazing that I’m alive,” Bagenholm herself said some months after the accident.

How does this case differ from the possible cryonic recoveries of the future? The length of time is different. My view is that it will take upwards of one hundred years before we are ready to revive the first cryonics patients. The mechanism of preservation and the technologies are not exactly the same. Cryonicists attempt to do deliberately and in a controlled manner what happened to Anna Bagenholm partly through luck. One of the most obvious technological differences is that cryonics must vitrify the brain—turn it into a glass—in order to prevent the damage associated with ice crystals. And cryonics is perhaps somewhat less likely to succeed. We do not yet know how to undo the chemical damage caused by the process of vitrification. Over time, though, the technology will improve. Two hundred years from now, reviving cryonics patients may prove to be far easier than it was to revive Anna Bagenholm.

If there were no objections to cryonics, I think the story would end there. Cryonics is just the first step in an emergency medical procedure that will be continued a hundred years from now when we have the necessary technology. But of course the story does not end there. My next posts will address some of the most plausible objections.

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