Is cryonics evil because it's cold?

by ata2 min read31st Oct 201026 comments

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There have been many previous discussions here on cryonics and why it is perceived as threatening or otherwise disagreeable. Even among LWers who are not signed up and don’t plan to, I’d say there’s a good degree of consensus that cryonics is reviled and ridiculed to a very unjustified degree. I had a thought about one possible factor contributing to its unsavory public image that I haven’t seen brought up in previous discussions:

COLD is EVIL.

Well, no, cold isn’t evil, but “COLD is EVIL/THREATENING/DANGEROUS/HARSH/LONELY/UNLOVING/SAD/DEAD” seems to be a pretty common set of conceptual metaphors. You see it in figures of speech like “cold-hearted,” “in cold blood,” “cold expression,” “icy stare,” “chilling,” “went cold,” “cold calculation,” “the cold shoulder,” “cold feet,” “stone cold,” “out cold.” (Naturally, it’s also the case that WARM is GOOD/COMFORTING/SAFE/SOCIAL/LOVING/HAPPY/ALIVE, though COOL and HOT sort of go in their own directions.) Associating something with coldness just makes it seem more threatening and less benevolent. And besides, being that “COLD is DEAD,” it’s pretty hard to imagine someone as not really dead if they’re in a container of liquid nitrogen at -135ºC. (Even harder if it’s just their head in there… but that’s a separate issue.) There is already a little bit of research on the effects of some of the conceptual metaphors of coldness and the way its emotional content leaks onto metaphorically associated concepts (“Cold and lonely: does social exclusion literally feel cold?”; “Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth.”; any others?).

And indeed, it seems that repeatedly talking about it from the “it involves coldness [or ‘freezing’]” angle rather than the “it’s about preserving minds” angle pushes the right emotional buttons to make people feel negatively about it, given cryonics critics’ and ridiculers’ fondness for talking about people getting their heads “frozen” (“…the guys who had their heads sawed off and frozen…”) and referring to cryonics patients as “corpsicles.”

Suppose there were some brain/body-preservation procedure that was, in practice, very similar to cryonics — in terms of cost, current popularity and awareness levels, probability of effectiveness, some visual weirdness not too much worse than other well-accepted medical procedures, etc. — but which somehow allowed storage at normal body temperature. Right away that would remove the threatening coldness metaphors and the disturbing mental images of heads frozen in blocks of ice and bodies stuffed into freezers (not that that’s anything like how it actually works, but most people assume it does because they only know about cryonics — er, I mean, “cryogenics” — from Austin Powers and Futurama and Batman and other popular fiction where it’s either a comedic trope or a villainous thing the villain does, and they likely will continue to treat that as the point of departure for everything else they learn about actual cryonics). If we did a survey of the general public asking two groups slightly different versions of the same question —

  • “If there were a medical procedure which, if all other attempts to treat a life-threatening condition failed, could preserve the patient indefinitely in a suspended state in anticipation that future technology may enable them to be resuscitated and treated, would you be open to undergoing this procedure as a last resort?”
  • “If there were a medical procedure which, if all other attempts to treat a life-threatening condition failed, could preserve the patient indefinitely in a frozen state at below -100ºC in anticipation that future technology may enable them to be thawed, revived, and treated, would you be open to undergoing this procedure as a last resort?”

— I’d bet that there would be noticeably more interest among Group A. (That modern cryonics doesn’t actually use freezing would be beside the point, for the purposes of such a survey; most people will not actually be familiar with the reasons why freezing is bad compared to vitrification, and the point would only be to use enough chilly words to test whether the idea of below-freezing temperatures is something that makes people more uncomfortable with it, all other things being equal.) A similar survey might ask how people would feel about the idea of a loved one or close friend deciding to sign up for one of these procedures, to get higher-resolution data on its emotional associations, as the data wouldn’t be as strongly affected by the other reasons (good or bad) that people might prefer not to do it themselves.

Of course, unless someone invents a method of brain preservation that doesn’t require very low temperatures and doesn’t have its own (likely) severe aura of weirdness to overcome (would you rather “have your head frozen” or “have your brain converted into plastic”?), this is either a non-issue or a marketing issue. I think this is plausible enough that it’s worth finding out — investigating empirically whether people really do respond better to a description of the process from a practical perspective, with coldness and “cryo[ge]nics” not being mentioned. If so, it may be beneficial for cryonics organizations to significantly rebrand and reframe their services.

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It's interesting, because I don't feel negatively about cryonics (and back when I did I don't think it had to do with coldness), but when you suggested the normal-temperature equivalent I got a very different mental image.

That person, the one at room temperature who can be brought back later, is sleeping.

Meanwhile, cryo-related mental images are all science-fictiony. I'm thinking of Fry from Futurama and the Ancient lady in Stargate SG-1 and so on. I have examples of those readily available to my pattern-matching software (I imagine most people in the general population aren't as familiar with this sort of media) and I can think of the previously frozen persons walking around lucid and alive.

But they weren't sleeping. And sleep is so harmless, so inviting.

Edit: "Room temperature" should really have been "body temperature". But the distinction seems relatively small in my mind. I think the key is that you can touch somebody who's body temperature or room temperature, if you want. You can go pat them on the head or hold their hand. You can't do that with someone frozen.

Indeed. Cold storage evokes science fiction and the various cartoonish parodies of it, and popular media depictions of wicked or comical immortalists, and religious mythology to some extent (being dead long enough to become "cold" and then coming back to life), while being unconscious but warm is more evocative of things that are seen as neither weird nor threatening nor comical, like Sleeping Beauty, and, more generally, of benign things like sleep, and undesirable-but-clearly-better-than-being-dead things like being in a coma.

So maybe it's actually more the "COLD is DEAD" metaphor at work than any of the "COLD is [something immoral or threatening]" metaphors. The idea of a person being that cold and still being revived seems much more like a resurrection than like waking up or even coming out of a long coma — which probably contributes to a "blasphemous!" pattern match among those whose religions tell them that dying and coming back to life is only for really important people, and a "hogwash!" pattern match among people who have rejected those religions.

That person, the one at room temperature who can be brought back later, is sleeping.

Meanwhile my instincts are making me literally cringe just reading that... The same way I cringe when see or hear tell of foreign locations where meat is sold unrefrigerated on the street. Lukewarm meat feels wrong at a visceral level.

Agreed, though my post did say "normal body temperature", not room temperature. A human body at normal body temperature just seems like a person who's at least slightly alive or was very recently alive, not like a dead and rotting piece of meat.

Agreed, though my post did say "normal body temperature", not room temperature.

I understand. I was going with Alicorn's description - and normal body temperature incidentally 'feels' a whole lot worse to me.

We're just talking about instinctive subjective reactions here but I note that one of the appealing things to me about your specific proposed explanation was that it didn't talk about temperature or bodies at all:

“If there were a medical procedure which, if all other attempts to treat a life-threatening condition failed, could preserve the patient indefinitely in a suspended state in anticipation that future technology may enable them to be resuscitated and treated, would you be open to undergoing this procedure as a last resort?”

That sounds good to me. And to Alicorn it translated into imagery of room temperature and sleeping. The same translation that feels 'inviting' to Alicorn feels revolting to me. Perhaps your (Ata's) instincts are also somewhat different to mine in as much as 'normal body temperature' feels better than 'room temperature'.

When OP suggested the normal-temperature equivalent I also got a very different mental image - of someone rotting, or pumped full of formaldehyde. The idea of doing it at room temperature gives me more of an "ick" factor. But I suspect that's just me.

Buck Rogers

[-][anonymous]10y 8

I'd expect more interest among your group A, but for a different reason: It doesn't specify a method, and therefore carries more of an implicit assumption that it works. You can object to B by saying "freezing probably wouldn't work", but objecting to A by saying "suspension probably wouldn't work" feels like denying the premise of the "if".

In vitro fertilisation involves similar cold, used to preserve actual embryos intended to grow up into real life humans. As does freezing sperm. No-one bats an eyelid; I'd suggest because these technologies work pretty well.

There are many complicated ethical questions surrounding both the freezing of sperm and the freezing of embryos, but these questions arise because the technologies do in fact work pretty well, therefore have to be taken seriously.

This suggests "cold is evil" is not a factor.

In vitro fertilisation involves similar cold, used to preserve actual embryos intended to grow up into real life humans. As does freezing sperm. No-one bats an eyelid; I'd suggest because these technologies work pretty well.

Were people similarly nonchalant about it back in the 1970s when the possibility was discussed seriously but there hadn't been even a proof-of-concept trial, not to mention having it as a standard medical procedure?

I recall various qualms about it, but none related to freezing, and I can find no evidence of qualms related to freezing - all the qualms seem to have been related to the actual implications of the technology working.

This suggests "cold is evil" is not a factor.

Or, perhaps, that good marketing has been used to avoid triggering that reaction. Even though I know that cold is used in the IVF process it isn't the first thing that springs to mind. Cryonics has it in the name. And there are frozen people in spaceships on TV. Usually with unrealistic ice formations.

I think most ladies prefer to be impregnated with warm semen - rathter than frozen semen.

Is it because it is cold?

Sounds plausible.

You say cryonics uses vitrification. Is that true? I thought people want to use vitrification, not that they'd figured out how to avoid freezing.

most people assume it does because they only know about cryonics — er, I mean, “cryogenics” — from Austin Powers and Futurama and Batman and other popular fiction where it’s either a comedic trope or a villainous thing the villain does

Changing society is a villainous thing the villain does. Being smart is a villainous thing the villain does. The superhero/villain trope reveals a deep prejudice against thought.

Vitrification (not freezing) can preserve biological structure very well. Adding high concentrations of chemicals called cryoprotectants to cells permits tissue to be cooled to very low temperatures with little or no ice formation. The state of no ice formation at temperatures below -120°C is called vitrification. It is now possible to physically vitrify organs as large as the human brain, achieving excellent structural preservation without freezing.

I've been thinking about this lately and I think you are probably right.

One way to improve the situation without changing the technical procedure is to emphasize vitrification as the important step in preservation -- turning the body into glass.

I feel like glassiness trumps coldness. If you're already glass, then you aren't able to feel cold. (Yes, I know that rationally being dead also trumps coldness)

Very relevant--but was Gilgamesh really the villain of the Epic of Gilgamesh?

I don't think it is that simple. Medical procedures involve all kinds of evil sounding actions. Cutting someone open, changing blood, replacing hearts, amputating and what not. Medicine has a generally decent public image, and they get away with whatever they think helps.

My impression is that death is considered something very natural and trying to avoid it is EVIL. Medication is fine,but trying to actually, consciously life longer than one is SUPPOSED TO is bad. If you look at fiction that is usually what you get. Biological life forms in SF are very happy to just life the amount of time they get, without any try to change it. Also average lifespan is often treated as the lifespan everyone gets. In reality humans have their 80 years, but some make it to 110+ (http://grg.org/Adams/E.HTM) while others fade with 50.But there is no public outcry about that. It is accepted and/or ignored.

I noticed how few people take conscious action to reduce risk factors. Being dead just does not factor in at any point. There is the whole notion of living short, but eventful vs. long and boring.

My bet is that a procedure at room temperature, or involving heating the patient up would get the very same ugh-reactions as cryonics gets. The reaction is independent of the concrete procedure, or its chances of actually working.

In terms of emotional response, I do feel better about room temperature. Vitrification?

I'm not sure how much this is negative connotations with cold, and how much is that room temperature (or ordinary air temperature) says "storage" to me, and requiring extreme cold says "fragile, unreliable, drastic".

"fragile, unreliable, drastic".

Yeah. Ice shatters.

Well, if nothing else, extreme cold requires someone to maintain it. Atmospheric temperature seems less in need of continual vigilance.

[-][anonymous]10y 1

I don't think this theory holds water. The main problem with cryonics from the mainstream point of view is the fundamental issue of the respect for the dead and the proper acceptance of death. From the point of view of an average person, holding corpses submerged in a liquid with the hope of future revival is equally perverse regardless of whether this liquid has to be held at very low temperatures.

(That alternet.org article you linked to is an amusing example of lefties trying to come to terms with something that's altogether outside of their purview. It's not something they can dismiss as traditional religious superstition, and their incapacity to understand it is an indication of their own falling behind the times, so they're forced to dig for ways to throw cheap and irrelevant shots. What an amusing display of human folly.)

At first I thought vitalistic thinking plays a role in this repugnance. However:

People don't seem to have that sort of yuck reaction when it comes to freezing human sperm cells or eggs, or storing frozen human embryos and then later reviving them to resume their normal development in a woman's womb. Nobody I know of calls the babies produced from previously frozen cells zombies.

And they certainly don't object to eating frozen foods, either ones like ice cream, or ones they have to heat up first. If cryonics offends the hominin brain because freezing somehow deprives biomass of its mythical "life principle," then why doesn't it also do that to food (depriving it of its life-sustaining value) and embryos (depriving them of souls)?

[-][anonymous]10y 0

I suspect I would have more of an instinctive aversion to the word 'thawed' than 'frozen'. I've never really trusted thawing.