A “memento mori” is an object that reminds us that we will die, a fact that is surprisingly easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of life. Being reminded of our inevitable demise is a way to contextualize what we do in life. Since your time is limited you have to prioritize how you spend it, and not waste it.
Death is a reality that humans have always fought against. From more primitive times almost every culture has invented the notion of an afterlife. At the very least, the belief that there is an intangible part of our existence separate from our bodies has always been widespread. There is no evidence for either an afterlife or a soul, and as far as science can tell, once our bodies are gone we are gone forever. That’s a scary thought, and it drives a lot of the research into curing death.
Far Future Dreams
There is little doubt that our medical capabilities will at some point allow for radical life extension and recovery from illnesses and injuries that are beyond our powers to cure today. A lot of people are going to die just short of those technologies, however. So the idea of cryopreservation was put forward as a way to bridge the gap between the medical technology of today and that of the future. The idea is that you freeze yourself now, and later, when the technology is developed to both fix whatever is wrong with you AND reverse the effects of cryopreservation, you could live on again; perhaps now for centuries.
How Cryogenic Freezing Works
While you are alive, you simply sign a contract with a cryopreservation company. It’s not cheap, but usually you also take out life insurance that will pay for the procedure at the point of your death. When you do finally die, a team of medical personnel takes your body and puts it through the process. It’s not as simple as dumping your body in a freezer. Instead, various fluids are pumped into the body to limit the damage caused by freezing.
In a bid to save costs, a person might choose just to have their head preserved. The idea is that you’ll be given a new, regenerated body in the future, so why bother storing the bit that will be thrown away anyway?
Your cryopreserved body will now be stored until you can be revived or the company goes out of business – whichever comes first.
But Should You?
That sounds perfectly reasonable on the face of it. The basic logic is sound, and if it turns out that it never becomes possible to revive you, well then you’d be none the wiser and no worse off. So is there really any risk in cryopreservation? Let’s look at some of the concerns you’ll have to think about.
Yes, while you are alive all you really have to do is pay the installments on your life insurance policy, but you have to think long and hard about whether the family you leave behind would be better off with that money than if you spent it on the rather remote chance that you’ll be revived at some point in the future. You also have to think about other people who you may also wish to cryopreserve, and how that will be paid for. Often, this would include a spouse or perhaps children. This is really a weighing of probabilities. If you are very wealthy or there is no real negative consequence to blowing a life insurance policy on cryopreservation, then you can do it with a clear conscience.
Read the Fine Print
Be very sure of the legal responsibilities of the cryopreservation company that you sign up with. While there is an argument to be made that all cryopreservation is essentially a sham, you should at least know that the people handling your remains will use the latest preservation techniques and take the whole thing very seriously. You should also know what the policy on visitation rights are and whether your descendants can have any say in what happens to your remains. Also keep an eye out for limited preservation periods or any other potential deal breakers. There is no reason to rush through the paperwork of a cryopreservation agreement.
Know Your (Lack) of Rights
Depending on where you live in the world, your rights upon death may be very limited. Be aware of the laws surrounding human remains in your country. You will also want to set up explicit wishes in your will, or in a contract with a descendant(s) as executor, to make sure that your preserved remains are treated according to your wishes.
Set Rules for Your Revival
If revival becomes possible, would you want it at any cost? For example, would a digital scan and reconstruction of your brain count as a revival to you? It certainly isn’t a continuation of the person who died and was frozen. Different people will have different philosophical views on whether that counts as a revival. You may want to specify that, unless you can be revived with your original brain and/or in a body equivalent to your old one, you do not wish to be brought back.
Understanding the Odds
The whole basis of cryogenic preservation is predicated on a lot of unknowns and wishful thinking. It’s important that anyone who decides to get preserved this way understands how much of a long shot it really is. Most importantly, you have to avoid giving yourself false hope. Even the very latest preservation methods do so much damage to biological tissues that we really have no inkling of how it would be repaired. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, but that some pretty drastic breakthroughs have to happen first.
The next factor against the odds of this actually working is the fact that we don’t know that much yet about how your memories and consciousness are stored and maintained in the brain. For all we know, the cryogenic process permanently destroys the information in your brain that makes you who you are.
Just the known damage to the brain from preservation is already even beyond our theoretical knowledge. So the faith you need to have in future science needs to border on the religious. This isn’t really a problem, except for the fact that it’s an incredibly expensive prospect. If the cost implications were not too dire, the choice would be much easier. The truth is that you and your family stand to lose quite a lot if you decide to be preserved in this way.
What if it Works?
One thing that few people ever discuss is what happens if you actually do get revived. We’re all gung ho about being revived, but what will that actually mean? If by some remote chance you do get revived, what would you need to consider? Let’s look at some of the realities of being revived from cryogenic preservation.
Why Would Anyone Want to Revive You?
People take it for granted that they would be revived, but what makes you special? Sure, at the time you were frozen you may have been well-off financially. You may have been quite valuable to society as a business owner, professional, or in some other capacity. But none of that may mean anything even 20 years from now.
If your revival is only a few decades after death, which is possible given projected technologies in the 21st century, then you could leave yourself a fortune of some kind. But if you are revived hundreds of years in the future, you may have to spend the remainder of your new life as a historical curiosity.
The Culture Shock Could be Immense
If you’ve ever been to a foreign country you may have experienced the culture shock that happens when you encounter a culture that has fundamentally different values and practices compared to our own. It happens because we are so immersed in our own cultures that we think of them as “right” and “normal”. So it comes as quite a psychological shock to see them disregarded.
Cultures don’t just change dramatically from region to region; they also change over time. Imagine if someone from the 1500s in Europe were to be transported to their home city today? They would be completely lost. The language they speak would be archaic, and just communicating would be a trial. Then there’s all the commonplace knowledge schoolchildren have today that would be completely mind-blowing to that person. The psychological toll would be immense.
Now project yourself forward 500 years and imagine trying to make sense of the world after skipping that much history. Surely it’s not an impossible mission, but it would be extraordinarily difficult.
Chances are that when you are revived, everyone you knew at the point of your death would have passed on themselves. Of course, depending on the details, you could wake up to a world where mind-uploading is a normal thing. So you may be greeted by digital copies of people that you knew and that just outlived you by a few decades.
However, it’s more likely that you’ll be greeted by total strangers. People that you may be incapable of ever relating to, or even beings that you could not recognize as people, depending on how far into the future you’re revived at last.
When is it a Good Idea?
I’ve alluded to some of the reasons why you might want to preserve yourself cryogenically, but let me list some of them explicitly.
If you are already advanced in age and aren’t likely to live long enough for life extension technology to pick up the slack, it makes sense to go the cryo route. Likewise, if you are terminally ill and pretty much know the window in which you will pass away, it’s not a bad choice.
Recently there was a case of a 14-year old girl who, prior to dying of terminal cancer, fought for the right to be frozen.
That was a situation where, given that money was not an issue, choosing to be preserved made sense.
If cryopreservation is not a particularly sensible idea, what else should we do if we want to live much longer than our allotted time?
Since we may be so close to a dramatic revolution in technology, it may be a better strategy to look at extending your current life as much as possible. This starts with eating a good diet and getting plenty of exercise, but soon it may also involve ingesting a cocktail of life-extending drugs and, as you age, having the will to accept artificial organs or pursue regenerative medical treatments.