The "yuck factor" and cryonics

In sensationalized accounts of cryonics, explicit descriptions of cryonics procedures, and that of neuropreservation in particular, are used to invoke a negative response in the reader.  Some bioconservatives have argued that disgust experienced in response to certain ideas and practices is “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it” (Leon Kass). In some cases, such as senseless violence, this is not necessarily an unreasonable approach because it may reflect a preserved instinct against behavior that is harmful to the individual or group. In such examples, however, the wisdom of repugnance can be corroborated by rational justification as well.

Where such an appeal to gut feelings is less fruitful, however, is in the context of medicine and forensics. The daily activities of many medical professionals and morticians consist of activities that would produce a strong negative gut response in most people who would observe them in all their detail. As the Alcor Life Extension Foundation points out in a document denying the mistreatment of Ted Williams:

Consider if a journalist did this expose of the funeral industry: “Funeral Home Scandal: Bodies injected with poison, organs mutilated, remains stuffed into wood boxes and covered with dirt!” It’s all true, right? Of course, if a disgruntled apprentice embalmer went to a sports magazine describing in graphic detail the use of a trocar during embalming of a sports celebrity, or the physical effects of cremation, he would be escorted out of the building by security.

The “yuck factor” that is produced in many people when they read about the details of cryonics procedures is not evidence of  pseudo-science or mistreatment. As a matter of fact, the procedures that are routinely performed in cryonics labs are designed to preserve life, not to destroy it. In this sense, the practice of cryonics can claim the moral high ground over prevailing methods of dealing with “human remains,”  where critically ill people are buried or burned because contemporary medicine has not yet found a way to treat them. If anything, it is this kind of medical myopia that should trigger the yuck factor.

Whole body cryopreservation with preferential brain treatment

A strong argument in favor of neuropreservation is that all efforts can be devoted to vitrification of the brain. Perfusion times are shorter and challenges present during perfusion of the rest of the body (such as abdominal swelling and the higher viscosity of whole body perfusates) are eliminated. The technique of isolated head perfusion may offer additional advantages such as increased cooling rates, superior venous drainage and reduced facial edema.

Some of these advantages are not incompatible with whole body cryopreservation if preferential treatment of the brain is offered to whole body patients. A number of recent Cryonics Institute cases, such as CI-77, indicate that such an approach may be feasible if experimental and practical challenges involving the composition of the cryoprotectant agent, cannulation and perfusion techniques, gastrointestinal ischemia, and selective brain cooling are overcome.

Future installments of this blog will review these separate issues in more detail.