The Big Chill: When Cryonics Divides a Marriage

Did you hear the one about the cryonics enthusiast who married the hospice worker? It sounds like the setup for a dark joke, but that's exactly what Robin Hanson and Peggy Jackson did 28 years ago. Robin, a professor of economics at George Mason University, is preparing to have his brain frozen in anticipation of eternal life in the great "futurocracy" yet to come. This is more than a little frustrating for Peggy, who spends her days coaxing patients to accept the inevitability of death.


The author of the article, Kerry Howley, reports that this relationship dynamic is so common that the cryonics subculture has even got a name for it, the "hostile wife phenomenon."

It's a bittersweet story. Robin and Peggy seem very much in love. Yet Robin is spending huge sums of money to prepare for an eternal life without her:

“Cryonics,” Robin says, “has the problem of looking like you’re buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land.” To spend a family fortune in the quest to defeat cancer is not taken, in the American context, to be an act of selfishness. But to plan to be rocketed into the future — a future your family either has no interest in seeing, or believes we’ll never see anyway — is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning. Those who seek immortality are plotting an act of leaving, an act, as Robin puts it, “of betrayal and abandonment.” [NYT]

Peggy insists on separate bank accounts so that she doesn't have to see Robin's yearly dues to the cryonics facility.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if cryonics were like organ donation, where you could check a box and forget about it. Unfortunately for cryonic refusniks like Peggy, the movement seems to consume a lot of the enthusiast's time and resources in the here and now.

Cryonics buffs may be asking a lot of their spouses, as well. It's a big commitment for the surviving spouse to shepherd the deceased through the freezing process. Suffice it to say that it's much, much more involved than calling the funeral home and picking out a casket. Peggy has sensibly washed her hands of the whole matter, thereby further decreasing the likelihood that Robin will live forever. I couldn't bear to say "no" if my partner asked me, but I'd also really, really resent it. Who wants to deal with the brain-removal technician when you're mourning the love of your life?

The cryo crowd insists that they're making the only rational choice, considering that the options are "certain death" or the remote possibility of eternal life. That all depends on how much it costs right now and how likely the payoff is. Even cryonics buffs will admit that the likelihood of the payoff is very small, but they insist that the price is low enough to justify the wager. "The hostile wife phenomenon" suggests that the price could be a lot higher than most cryonics enthusiasts account for in their calculations.

I imagine it would be excruciating for a non-believer to live with someone who was constantly gloating with his cronies about how great life was going to be in the imagined distant future, without you. Atheists married to evangelical Christians probably experience similar frustrations. Some people probably just shrug off the difference of opinion. I think I'd feel deeply alienated from someone who charted his future on a totally different time scale. Knowing that you're going to die that makes every day you choose to spend with someone that much more of an investment. What's it like to be with someone who thinks they've got all the time in the world?

Cryonics is a secular act of faith that's scarcely more plausible than the belief in supernatural salvation. Howley does a good job of explaining the logistical challenges of cryonics--from being able to whisk the body out of the hospital in time to perfuse it, to transporting it to Arizona, to making sure that someone keeps topping up the liquid nitrogen for thousands? (tens of thousands?) of years.

The cryonics enthusiasts are making a version of Pascal's Wager: It only costs you a little bit to believe in God, and if you believe you might go to heaven, whereas if you don't believe you're damned to hell. So, it's rational to believe. The rejoinder is that we can't be sure if that's the deal on offer. Maybe if we pick the wrong God, we'll be damned. Maybe God actually rewards skeptics and punishes believers. Who knows? By the same token, we have no idea whether cryonic reanimation means eternal bliss or eternal torment, or most likely, a lot of money wasted for nothing.

The cryonics enterprise is based on extremely dubious precepts, including the hope that reanimation technology will ever be discovered and the supposition that anyone will be interested in reviving the brains of long-dead nobodies when the time comes. I've seen enough zombie movies to wonder if communities of the future will welcome the living dead with open arms. Could guys like Robin handle being reanimated as members of a despised minority? To bad I won't be there to find out.

[Photo credit: By flickr user Ant Smith, licensed under Creative Commons.]

Many thanks to Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon for sending me the link. Update: Here's Amanda's take on cryonics for the lovelorn at Double X.

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What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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