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  Columnist: Tammy A. Branom

Image credit: Andrew Mason

Outside the box

Posted on Monday, 14 March, 2011 | 3 comments
Columnist: Tammy A. Branom

Recently, I was browsing my movie collection and an old 1963, black and white movie called “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” drew my attention. To briefly summarize the movie, it’s rather like a Frankenstein’s monster tale. Bill, a (brilliant) surgeon is using new “techniques” to save lives. He also confiscates limbs from the hospital where he works for “research.” After he wrecks the car he and his fiancée are in, he manages to salvage only her head from the burning auto. Packing it to his secret “lab” in a cabin, he animates her head. Then he searches for a body for her. Of course, there’s a monster in a closet and an assistant who the surgeon has practiced on and the surgeon’s concerned father, but that’s not why I watched this film.

The title made me think of baseball legend Ted Williams. A company called Alcor cryogenically froze only his head. His head was removed and frozen in a metal container--a head in a can.

I gazed at the picture on the movie box of a horrified woman who was only a head on a table with tubes and wires attached. A head in a box.

As I watched the old film, many questions and thoughts expressed in the movie prompted me to delve deeper into the frozen, severed head idea beyond the media stories.

As it turned out, many of Alcor’s members believe they don’t need to tote their body to the future. So, Alcor does offer a “neuro” (head only) suspension as a cheaper solution to a “whole body” suspension. All of Alcor’s neuro members are vitrified. This procedure is intended to solidify fluid in the tissue to a glass-like state when temperatures are reduced to extremely low levels, thus there is no decay or ice crystals to cause cell cracking and damage.

Other companies, like Cryonics Institute still freeze their members to super-low temperatures of liquid nitrogen, which is –320 degrees Fahrenheit. This process increases the likelihood of ice crystals and irreversible damage.

For now though, of course, everything is still theory. Alcor and other suspension companies rely heavily on the development of future technology not yet even conceived of for the time when they awaken their members, such as nanotechnology and cures for diseases, not to mention creating a body for a neuro. We all see and read about new developments in science and health almost daily, so future technologies needed to repair what has been done naturally (or unnaturally) to a neuro aren’t unthinkable. And if that is possible, then making a body would probably not pose much of a problem, other than what to do with the extra, unwanted head. I’ll guess HazMat will still be around.

At this point, I had to ask myself why anyone would deliberately want to be a frozen head. You are simply a head. Not only would you need to wait for the revival technology, but also you would need to hope for the technology to put your brain in something, like a robot, or attach your head to a “donor” body (that’s just creepy). Otherwise, as just a head in a box, I think you would go insane, unless you are placed inside a virtual reality world. That could be disheartening after paying out all that money and then never SEE the future world; you’d only be something akin to a video game.

My thoughts drifted back to the movie. Bill and his father (who is also a surgeon) argue over Bill’s experiments. “The human body is not a jigsaw puzzle to experiment on,” says Dad. “You shouldn’t experiment on humans.” Dad pointed out that Bill should be sure of his results by testing over and over on rabbits, mice, and monkeys.

As far as cryogenically preserving humans, I think Dad’s lines should be considered here. In my research, I found that rabbits, hamsters, and dogs have been frozen and revived with no “apparent” damage. I watched a video of a dog’s head after reviving. It licked the air and its eyes twitched. Cells and embryos have been frozen and thawed through cryonics for years. But humans have not.

Apparently, the problem is not so much with the freezing, as it is with the thawing. During re-warming, ice crystals can, and often do, enlarge and cause severe damage to cells. While vitrification reduces this ice damage, it still occurs.

Just because of animal and small-scale cellular achievements, this does not mean that an entire body or a complex brain will ever be successful, yet these are the grounds for companies like Alcor to convince people to join. These people become the guinea pigs for a long-term experiment. Talk about time travel...

Again, I thought about the movie and a line from Bill’s assistant after Bill sets up his fiancée’s head on a table. “Only a madman would believe she could ever be like before.”

Would a suspended person still be the same when revived? Would their personality remain the same? After all, they had to legally die first in order to be frozen.

People who recover from hypothermic death show no signs of loss of their “self.” Likewise, those who have been dead and resuscitated through CPR or defibrillation usually exhibit no identity alterations. But these are short-term examples of death. Members of Alcor and Cryonics Institute are probably going to be frozen for years or even decades.

At, an overview of cryonics issues is outlined. Included is this passage that seems to cover the identity loss problem very well:

“Some people worry that the cessation of electrical activity during cryopreservation would mean a loss of personal identity and memory. Although immediate (short-term) memories would probably be lost, there is ample reason to believe that identity & long-term memory is encoded in synapses and in the connections between neurons—which would be cryopreserved.”

So, cryogenically preserving a person (head or body) should not be any consequence to their “self.”

But, is that all that we are? Embedded information in our brain cells?

And what about those left behind? When I visited the Cryonics Institute website, they state that they don’t even offer a neuro suspension. They cite concerns mainly dealing with public relations and patients’ families.

“And as human beings we understand that it just borders on the impossible for a person to go to the parents or children or friends of someone who has just passed away, and have to explain that the head of that person, whose loss has broken their heart, is going to be cut off and frozen in a tank with a dozen others somewhere. Nerves are frayed, families are grief-stricken, some of them may never even have heard of cryonics much less the scientific plausibility of it, and outbursts, arguments, and threats of lawsuits are inevitable.

Why ask for such trouble—trouble that can put a patient at risk?”

The next thought that comes to mind is of someone revived in the future. Their children could be alive, and their children’s children. At the rate of population growth today, the world will run out of resources. If someone is awakened and they remain a biological entity, that person simply becomes one more mouth to feed in an already burdened planet.

Then there’s the flip side. What if revival depends upon robotics? A person revived would not impede upon food sources or any resources that would be limited. However, the question arises of whether anyone would want to revive cryogenically frozen people and drop their brain into a robot or artificial body. The cost alone would most likely be high, if indeed our current method of buying and selling is still in place (which it may not). So, if one is not important enough to revive or has a use for historical purposes or even for (heaven forbid) military experimentation, odds are good you will stay frozen.

However, let’s assume that in the future, technology can restore a neuro to a body (robotic or otherwise) and to full health to resume a full life. Let’s assume that information stored in the brain’s synapses retrieves an individual’s full identity, memories, and personality. Haunting pleas of Bill’s assistant ring in my head. “Can’t you realize? Can’t you see? There’s a pattern to all that lives, an order, an arrangement. She had a heart and a brain and her spirit was in both—not in one or the other.”

Bill, of course, is going to find her a body and the she will have a brain and a heart once again.

The assistant asks, “Yes, but what of her soul?”

Again, I stared at the picture on the movie box of that horrified woman who was only a head on a table with tubes and wires attached. So, what of her soul?

Hopefully, it’s encoded on a synapse in the brain along with the rest of the “self.” I hope that we are all more than skin sacks feeding our gray matter in our skulls.

I hope to be more than a brain in a box.

Article Copyright© Tammy A. Branom - reproduced with permission.

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