Posted on Dec 7, 2011 in Science & nature
Do people really preserve bodies for the future with cryogenics? I mean, this is science fiction stuff, right? Or do they really, truly freeze people so they can be thawed out later and be cured?
The freezing of humans to be revived at a later time has been fodder for the cinema for years, in almost every genre from comedy, to action, to romantic dramas mind-bending dramas. However the idea of freezing a human (or pet… or just a brain) for later revival isn’t just a fairy tale — people really do this.
So why would someone do this? Let’s go directly to the source. This quote is pulled directly from the front page of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s website:
“Cryonics is a speculative life support technology that seeks to preserve human life in a state that will be viable and treatable by future medicine.”
Or this, from the Cryonics Institute:
“When and if future medical technology allows, our member patients hope to be healed, rejuvenated, revived, and awakened to a greatly extended life in youthful good health, free from disease or the aging process.”
In short, let’s say you are dying of incurable cancer. The hope is, by freezing the body to around 77 Kelvin immediately after death, the body — and most importantly, the mind — can be preserved for a future date when technology exists that can reverse not only the effects of the disease, but the effects of the freezing. This can mean anything from revival — waking up and walking around in the same body that was frozen, to mind transfer of memories or even consciousness.
This whole idea hinges upon the concept of information-theoretic death, that is the destruction of information within the human brain to the extent that recovery of the original person is impossible by any physical means. You see, death is clinically defined as when the heart stopped beating — cardiac or clinical death. Of course, a heart can be restarted and the person “brought back from the dead” as a result — the information in the brain, what makes a person that person is still intact. The concept of cryonics is based on the idea that freezing the body — most importantly the brain — preserves the information contained within that brain, which could possibly be restarted at a later point in time.
Obviously, this is all just theory right now — no one who has been frozen for the last 40 years has been revived yet. However, the promise of a future reawakening has been attractive enough — as of 2011 there were over 200 people preserved between Alcor and the Cryonics Institute.
The history of cryonics has not been without its controversy. In 1969, it was discovered that one of the early cryonics pioneers, the Cryonics Society of California (CSC) had allowed nine bodies to thaw due to depletion of funds by relatives, after being maintained for 18 months at the personal expense of the head of the organization.
In 2009, Alcor came under fire for the mistreatment of the remains of baseball great Ted Williams, whose head was used “for a bizarre batting practice” among other horror stories, including tales of bodies being stored in steel tanks amongst boxes of junk.
Finally, despite much urban lore to the contrary, Walt Disney is not actually known to have had his body (or any part thereof) frozen cryogenically.
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