Freeze Frame: Lifting The Lid On Cryonics

SLIDESHOW: Cryostats are insulated tanks for long term patient storage in liquid nitrogen.

An estimated 2,500 bodies around the world have been ‘frozen’ in the hope of some future resurrection.

If you have around US$90,000 to spare and are of a gambling disposition, perhaps your final journey should be to Australia. A company called Southern Cryonics is looking to open a facility in New South Wales this year that will allow its customers to ‘freeze’ their bodies after death in the hope of one day being resurrected. If it goes ahead, it will make Australia only the third country, after the US and Russia, where such a service is available.

But, especially for those of a futurist bent perhaps, it’s as valid a thing to do with one’s body as burial or cremation. Last year, a terminally ill 14-year-old girl in the UK became the first and only child so far to undergo the cryonic process. This is technically not freezing but vitrification, in which the body is treated with chemicals and chilled to super-cold temperatures so that molecules are locked in place and a solid is formed. An estimated 2,500 bodies around the world are now stored in this condition.

Supporters concede that the technology to revive the infinitely complex interactions between those molecules may never exist, but are nonetheless hopeful, pointing to shifting conceptions of what irreversible death actually is. If, for example, cessation of a heartbeat used to define it, now hearts can be re-started — today’s corpse may be tomorrow’s patient. They point to experiments such as that announced last year by 21st Century Medicine, which claimed to have successfully vitrified and recovered an entire mammalian brain for the first time, with the thawed rabbit’s brain found to have all of its synapses, cell membranes and intracellular structures intact.

“It’s not just cryonics. Stem-cell research, nano-tech, cloning, the science just keeps plugging away towards a future [of reanimating] that may or may not come to exist,” says an upfront Dennis Kowalski, president of the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute. His company was launched just over 40 years ago to provide cryostasis services. “Lots of things considered impossible not long ago are possible today, so we just don’t know how cryonics will work out. For people who use the service it’s really a case of there’s nothing to lose.”

Naturally, not everyone is hopeful that such processes will ever work out for those in the chiller. “The problem with cryonics is that the perception of it is largely shaped by companies offering a service based on something completely unproven,” says João Pedro De Magalhães, biologist and principal investigator into life extension at the University of Liverpool, UK, and co-founder of the UK Cryonics and Cryopreservation Network. “You’re talking about a fairly eccentric procedure that only a few people have signed up to and into which little reported research is being done. That said, I think the people providing these services do believe there’s a chance it may work one day, although I would have to say they’re optimistic.”

But this is not to say that living longer won’t, in time, prove possible as a result of some other method; just that arguably this is more likely to be based around preserving a life that has not experienced death, rather than the promise of reanimating one after its demise. The chasm between the two is all the more pronounced given neuroscience’s still scant ideas as to what consciousness or mind is, let alone how it might be saved and rebooted; would the warmed and reanimated you be the you that died, or a mere simulacrum? Your body may well not be the same: many of those opting for cryo-preservation go for the ‘freezing’ of just their brains.

Certainly while cryonics specifically may remain a largely unexplored field, Google is now investing in anti-ageing science, an area that, as De Magalhães puts it, “now has fewer crackpots and more reputable scientists working in it, with stronger science behind it too”. Indeed, as Yuval Noah Harari argues in his best-selling book Homo Deus, humanism’s status as contemporary society’s new religion of choice, combined with technological advances, makes some form of greatly extended lifespan inevitable for some generation to come. Whether this will be by melding man and machine, by genetic manipulation, by a form of existence in cyberspace or some other fix can only be speculated at, but everything about our civilisation’s recent development points to it becoming a reality.

Advances in medicine, after all, have greatly extended average longevity over the last century alone. With this has come a shift in perspective that sees death less as the natural end point to a life so much as a process of disease that could, and perhaps should, be tackled like any other disease that threatens existence. De Magalhães points out that for many working in the field it is less about the pursuit of immortality as of improved health.

“After all, it’s not self-evident that we all want to live forever, and there are philosophical arguments for the idea that death is good, that it’s necessary to appreciate life,” he says. “But it is self-evident that nobody wants Alzheimer’s, for example. If you focus on retarding the problems of ageing then inevitably we’re going to live longer. The longevity we have now isn’t ‘normal’; it’s already better than what we had not long ago. Extrapolate that to the future and in a century the length of time we live now might be considered pretty bad. One can envisage a time when we might live, if not forever, then perhaps thousands of years — so much longer than we live now that it might feel like forever.”

That, naturally, would bring with it profound changes to the way in which we perceive ourselves and to how the world operates and all the more so if living considerably longer became a possibility faster than society was able to inculcate the notion. How would such a long lifespan affect our sense of self? Would institutions and mores such as lifelong marriage and monogamy remain the norm? When would we retire? How would our relationships with the many subsequent generations of our family be shaped? How would population growth be managed? How would such long lives be funded?

Such questions are, for sure, of no concern to those currently in cryostasis. “These people tend to be into sci-fi, and into science too,” suggests Kowalski, who has signed up himself, his wife and children for cryonic services when the time comes. “I think for a lot of them it’s not necessarily about the fear of death. It’s more a fascination with the future. They’re optimistic about what it will bring. They’re more Star Trek than Terminator.”

Recommended For You

Related Articles