Is cryonics evil because it's cold?

by ata 9y31st 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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