On January 12, 1967, psychology professor James Bedford died due to cancer-related natural causes. Within hours, a team of scientists filled his veins with antifreeze. They packed his body in a container full of dry ice, and in so doing made Bedford the first man ever frozen alive in the name of—well, if not science, something that aspired to be science one day: cryonics.
On December 23rd, 2009, at 4 a.m., I listened to my neighbors play “Forever Young” for the fortieth time in a row. Either the partygoers had either left or the DJ had died, and any attendees were either passed out or too blitzed to notice. The song played on repeat:
I want to be
I aged 10 years that night, while Bedford—tucked away in a fresh liquid nitrogen bath that came complementary with his 1991 inspection—remained immortal.
What is Cryonics, for Crying out Loud?
Fifty years have passed since Bedford volunteered to become the first cryogenically frozen man. And while cultural depictions sporadically crop up—think Austin Powers, Futurama and yes, Mel Gibson in Forever Young—cryonics is often thought to belong more to the realm of science fiction than science, and to put an even finer point on it, an escapist fiction that eludes actionable reality.
Yet cryonics offers grounds just as fertile for ethics as they do the imagination. Just think: people wage fierce wars about when life begins. Cryonics twists, turns and flips that argument around to become a deeper meditation on the moment that life ends.
So when does it?
When a Body Becomes a Patient
The Alcor Life Extension Foundation which preserved Bedford describes cryonics as “an effort to save lives by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today’s medicine can be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health.” The Foundation tellingly describes its members as “patients”—not bodies. The “dewars” are not coffins, they are the temporary resting place for people who will one day wake up.
Michael Hendrix, neuroscientist and assistant professor of biology at McGill University, describes how the future of cryonics rests upon “the promise of new technologies in neuroscience, particularly recent work in “connectomics”—a field that maps the connections between neurons …a detailed map of neural connections could be enough to restore a person’s mind, memories and personality by uploading it into a computer simulation.”
In other words, cryonics claims that a cryogenically frozen person is not dead. He or she is merely on pause, similar to the way a videogame character won’t age while the player fiddles through the menu screen. The cycle of life rests upon the ability of scientists—and technology—to catch up to an idea born centuries before its time.
And as far as the science of resuscitation, cryonics does not actually rely upon the preservation of the entire body (as the choice of some people to have just their heads frozen, notably MLB player Ted Williams, testifies to), but upon the ability to map out the neurological connections between the brain, lift that map and recreate it in another body—possibly a robot, possibly something scientists and dreamers haven’t yet conceived.
The Grounds for Debate
Arguments against cryonics often hinge upon two main points. The first is that at best, the ethical implications of the procedure show a Labrador’s level of devotion to the promise of science. At worst, they play upon the emotions (and pocketbooks) of the bereaved survivors, who hold out false hope for the resuscitation of their loved one, possibly derailing and even deranging the cycles of the grieving process. The second raw—and undeniable—fact is that the technology for making a frozen person reenter society as a whole, living human being simply does not exist.
As for arguments for it? The most simple, powerful argument of all: immortality.
In 2014, the total count of cyropreserved bodies reached 250. An estimated 1,500 people total had made arrangements for cryopreservation after their legal death. The New York Times cites nonreligious white males as the main partakers, outdoing females by a ratio of three to one. As the world’s first volunteer, Bedford received a freebie, but most cyropreservation costs at least $80,000. A Russian company, KioRus, boasts the steal at $12,000 a head—literally speaking. But costs all but disappear in the face of a successful experiment. Say someone pays $80,000 now to rejoin the living 200 years later? Forget about calculating inflation differences.
No matter what side of cryonics one comes down upon—and science offers arguments for both—a central idea remains, both chilling and mesmerizing, depending upon the way it’s turned. A successful cyropreservation would entail rebirth—but into a world wholly different than the one left behind. If James Bedford came back tomorrow, could he handle the emotional—not to mention mental—tribulations of adjusting to a world that moved on without him? Would the forever young experience drone on like the song on that December night, an individual sentenced to the eternal return of the same song, Existence?
After my own encounter with “Forever Young”—I certainly hope not.
Elisia Guerena is a Brooklyn based writer, who writes about tech, travel, feminism, and anything related to inner or outer space.