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Worldwide Cryonics Attitudes About the Body, Cryopreservation, and Revival: Personal Identity Malleability and a Theory of Cryonic Life Extension

Abstract

This research examines the practice of cryonics and provides empirical evidence for an improved understanding of the motivations and attitudes of participants. Cryonics is the freezing of a person who has died of a disease in hopes of restoring life at some future time when a cure may be available. So far, about 300 people have been cryopreserved, and an additional 1200 have enrolled in such programs. The current work has three vectors. First, the results of a worldwide cryonics survey (n = 316) carried out as part of this research are discussed. Second, a theoretical model is developed from the survey results to propose a Theory of Cryonic Life Extension which explains an individual’s decision to select cryopreservation. Third, the most distinctive survey result, a conceptualization of personal identity malleability, is extended with a philosophical formulation. Personal identity is found to be emergent, not fundamental, and thus may continue to evolve in concept and application, particularly in the longer time frames implicated by cryonics. The potential consequences of this work are that the conceptual norms materializing in the cryonics community could be forerunners of wider societal trends of how humans understand themselves as subjects in an era increasingly configured by science and technology.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Health span: the period of a life during which someone is generally healthy and free from serious or chronic illness (https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/healthspan).

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to acknowledge and thank numerous cryonicists for their help in this project.

Author information

Correspondence to Melanie Swan.

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Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

‘Death is something I can live without’—Cryonics Survey respondent, July 2017

Appendices

Appendix 1. Worldwide Cryonics Survey: Results Methods and Highlights

Survey Methods: Worldwide Cryonics Community Survey (n = 316)

To obtain the attitudes of cryonicists (cryonics program enrollees and supporters), a worldwide survey was conducted July-August 2017. The survey was carried out through an open call to several cryonics community social media outlets such as email lists, forums, and social networking interest groups. KrioRus translated the survey into Russian for their members. The aim of the survey was to identify key themes and composite views of worldwide community members. ‘Community members’ are self-designated as those being interested in and supportive of cryonics. 88% of survey respondents indicated that they are enrolled members of a cryonics provider (Table 24). The format of the survey was 37 questions with suggested multiple-choice answers plus ‘other’ and write-in comments available for all questions. The results are tabulated here for 316 worldwide survey respondents. Results are reported with the top answers given for all respondents to any question (not everyone responded to every question). Since multiple responses are allowed, total responses may sum to greater than 100%. Tag clouds are used as a visualization technique to represent qualitative responses, the larger the word size, the more frequently it was cited by respondents.

Survey Highlights

Cryonics motivations and conceptualizations

  • The biggest motivation for cryonics is the possibility of future revival (74%) and the affirming attitude that ‘life is good, more is better’ (72%)

  • The current physical body is thought of as being ‘part of me,’ temporary, a platform, a current necessity, and something adequate but fragile that is in need of repair and upgrade

  • What happens when you are cryopreserved is that it is like being in a temporary off-state; degradation and decay are halted. In this state of suspended animation, deep sleep, stasis, and deanimation, it is like being on hold, paused, anesthetized, hibernating, or in a coma

  • Seventy-five percent think that it is crucial to cryopreserve one’s own brain as opposed to creating a virtual version of oneself from photos, correspondence, etc.

  • Fifty-seven percent believe that only ‘my actual brain’ can be ‘the real me,’ while 43% say that ‘my actual brain’ is closest to ‘the real me’

  • While “the source of me” must be this physical brain, “my current physical body does not have to be crucially me” in the future; preferably it is but it does not have to be

Cryopreservation specifics

  • Fifty-three percent chose whole-body cryopreservation and 39% neuro-cryopreservation

  • Cost (48%) and perceived technical feasibility (46%) influence that decision

  • Fifty-seven percent prefer whole-body cryopreservation if concerns can be allayed

  • Ninety percent are most concerned about obtaining a good-quality cryopreservation in the final moments of their current physical body

  • Fifty-eight percent think that whether any trauma is experienced could depend on the cryopreservation and other factors

Revival

  • Forty-four percent of respondents would like to be revived in a biological flesh-based body

  • Fifty percent think that the first revival might occur in 2075–2100

  • Eighty-seven percent would like to revive all memories, and intellect (89%), personality (87%), skills (77%), and emotion (76%)

  • The biggest motivation for revival is a desire to experience the future world (89%)

  • The principle concerns regarding revival are impairment or loss during cryopreservation (61%) and the technical feasibility of revival (61%)

Ceremonial rites, spirituality and religion, family support, and attitudes toward death

  • Regarding traditional ceremonial rites, most would like whatever is appropriate at the time (54%), some a celebration of life (24%), and some a funeral (12% a non-religious funeral and 9% a religious funeral)

  • Concerning spirituality and religion, 68% indicate that “non-religious” is a term that describes their views, and 6% religious; 17% non-spiritual and 14% spiritual. Forty-one percent are supportive of empathy and compassion and 17% indicate having a holistic view of the world

  • For those selecting neuro-cryopreservation, preferences regarding the disposition of the body are donating it to research (39%), leaving it to the discretion of the cryopreservation facility (33%), cremation (19%), and burial (11%)

  • Twenty-three percent of respondents enjoy full support (10 on a scale of 1 to 10) from family members for their cryonics decision, for others it may be irrelevant or divisive

  • Seventy-seven percent think that cryonics brings more choice to the current societal approaches to death: greater personal decision-making (66%) and freedom (62%), especially since death is a taboo topic (49%), that is regulated (40%), clinical, and impersonal (33%)

Cryonics provider, payment, and community

  • Seventy percent of survey respondents indicated that they are enrolled members of a cryopreservation service. Enrolled respondents are with Alcor (65%), Cryonics Institute (22%), KrioRus (11%), and other (2%)

  • Fifty-three percent are happy with their cryonics provider (satisfaction ratings of 8–10 out of 10) and would like them to be doing more research in all aspects of cryonics

  • Seventy-six percent think that individuals selecting cryopreservation should pay for it, and would like it to be an option incorporated into health insurance plans

  • The top adjectives used to describe the cryonics community are hopeful, optimistic, visionary, small, intelligent, forward-thinking, and scientific

Demographics

  • Age groups include 30 and under (22%), 30–40 (26%), 40–60 (35%), and 60 and over (30%)

  • The average length of interaction with the cryonics community has been 5–10 years

  • Gender identification is male (81%), female (17%), and other (1%)

  • The highest level of completed education is high school (18%), college (40%), master’s (29%), and PhD (11%)

  • The biggest career designations are business and entrepreneurship (35%), computer science (34%), and biology and medicine (21%)

Practical Considerations: Next Steps for the Cryonics Industry

Since cryonics is currently in the early phases of development and adoption, survey respondents made suggestions about how to professionalize and systematize cryonics. Diverse processes would need to be in place for cryonics to be consistently recognized and implemented as a viable alternative. One first step in institutionalizing the practice of cryonics could be integrating it with existing health services delivery. Medicalizing cryonics as a potential treatment option, with accompanying financial structures, could help to formalize the practice as an end-of-life option.

Cryonics could be absorbed more firmly and extensively into other existing medical processes, placed in the value chain that includes scientific research on one hand (research funding, studies, and results publication), and practical implementation in health care systems on the other (treatment, licensed professionals, insurance, and financing). Other medical, financial, and legal support systems would also need to be incorporated, for example having direct integration with the funeral industry (Stodolsky 2016). Rebranding cryonics as a medical treatment could help in enhancing its public perception, and creating demand. One idea would be to promote a public understanding of cryonics as a method of developing technologies for medical biostasis, and possibly reversible death.

In the regulatory domain, delineating the legal rights of cryopreserved persons is a topic that requires greater clarification. Sixteen percent of survey respondents indicate that legal considerations are an important factor in their having selected whole-body cryopreservation or neuro-cryopreservation (Table 7), as the two forms may carry different legal status in the future. Terasem’s Colloquium on the Law of Futuristic Persons discusses topics such as the legal determinations of death, different state laws, and the legal rights of cryogenically revived persons (Sega 2005).

Appendix 2. Worldwide Cryonics Survey: Results Methods and Highlights

(July–August 2017; 316 Respondents)

The biggest motivations for cryonics, identified by nearly three-quarters of survey respondents (Table 5), are the possibility of future revival (74%), and a life-affirming view that “life is good and more is better” (72%). About half of respondents also cite wanting more time to do things (49%), that death is inhumane (47%), and the potential technical feasibility of revival (45%). Other motivations include supporting cryonics-related research (38%), and forward-thinking ideas more generally (34%). Fear and uncertainty of death was cited as a motivation by a third of respondents (32%), and curiosity by 31%.

Table 5 (Q1) What are your principle motivations for considering or enrolling in cryonics?

Of the methods of cryopreservation currently available, 53% selected whole-body and 39% selected neuro-cryopreservation, as indicated in Table 6.

Table 6 (Q2) Which method of cryopreservation did or would you select?

Cost (48%) and perceived technical feasibility (46%) are the main variables influencing the choice of neuro-cryopreservation versus whole-body cryopreservation (Table 7).

Table 7 (Q3a) What influences your choice of neuro versus whole-body cryopreservation?

Fifty-seven percent of respondents indicated that they would prefer whole-body cryopreservation if concerns could be addressed regarding cost, perceived technical feasibility, and other factors (Table 8).

Table 8 (Q3b) Would you prefer whole-body cryopreservation if concerns were addressed?

Respondents indicated a number of different ways in which they think about their physical body right now (Chart 1). The highest response cited is that “my body is part of me,” followed by being temporary, a platform, a current necessity, something that would be adequate to upgrade, a vessel, something that is aging, ailing, and in need of repair, a machine-like entity, and something that is wonderful. Some respondents expressed appreciation, gratitude, and enjoyment of their physical body. Others point to the fact that they have not known any other form of experience other than the one based in this physical body. This physical body is the only option at the moment. Others talk about the body as a machine, mechanism, shell, hardware platform, vessel, vehicle, transport, infrastructure, and life support system. A prevalent theme is awareness of the limitations and fragility of the physical body; it has a temporality given to aging, ailing, and decay. Several anticipate the possibility of being able to upgrade, replace, modify, and enhance the current physical body. Although the most frequent answer cited is “my body is part of me,” there is a further distinction as to whether “my body is crucially part of me,” now and in the future. Here more respondents (86%) indicated that “my current physical body does not have to be crucially me” in the future, while others (14%) do think that the persistence of the current physical body is necessary to be “crucially me” in the future. Others contemplate evolution and the difficulty of knowing now what the farther future might hold for corporeality.

Chart 1
figure6

(Q4) How do you think about your physical body right now? My body is… (e.g., part of me, a platform, temporary, a current necessity)?

Forty-four percent of respondents (Table 9) indicate a preference for being revived in a biological flesh-based body and 40% select whatever is recommended, feasible, or standard at the time of potential revival. A third (33%) say it might depend on a variety of factors, and a quarter (24%) would like to be woken up mid-process and consulted in the decision, if possible.

Table 9 (Q5) In what form would you like to be revived?

Overwhelmingly, 75% of respondents (Chart 2) indicate that they think it is crucial to cryopreserve one’s own brain as opposed to creating a virtual version of oneself from photos, correspondence, etc.

Chart 2
figure7

(Q6) How essential is it to cryopreserve your brain versus create only a “digital you” from artifacts such as photos, email, essays, papers? Inessential (1) to Essential (10)

Fifty-seven percent of respondents believe that only “my actual brain” can be “the real me” (Table 10); with 43% saying that “my actual brain” is closest to “the real me.” Other reasons given for why it is important to cryopreserve one’s actual brain are to capture the memories (44%), have more information than offered by a digital facsimile (40%), and to capture emotional content (37%).

Table 10 (Q7) What is the benefit of having your actual brain cryopreserved (versus photos, writing, etc.)?

Chart 3 indicated the main ideas respondents have of what happens when you are cryopreserved. The biggest response is that one is preserved (cryopreserved) such that the ongoing biological processes of degradation and decay are halted. It is like being in a temporary off-state. Respondents indicated that they may be considered legally, clinically, and/or technically dead, in a cryopreserved manner, until they are no longer dead: it is a temporary condition. One is in suspended animation, deep sleep. It is like being anesthetized, comatose, de-animated, in stasis or hibernation, on hold, paused. Some respondents gave technical definitions about cooling the temperature of the body, perfusing cryoprotectants, and storing the body in liquid nitrogen. Respondents contemplate that revival is possibly anticipated in the future as technology advances, disease cures are discovered, and that there may be some unpreventable damage.

Chart 3
figure8

(Q8) How would you describe what happens to you when you are cryopreserved? (to the body, mind, etc.)

Considering the possibility of trauma, 58% of respondents think that whether any trauma is experienced in cryopreservation could depend on the cryopreservation process and other factors, but generally expect that trauma would be low (Table 11).

Table 11 (Q9) Do you think that any trauma is experienced in cryopreservation?

Forty-eight percent of respondents think that it is too soon to know if any trauma might be experienced in revival, and 48% also think that it might depend on many factors (Table 12).

Table 12 (Q10) Do you think that any trauma is experienced in revival?

There are diverse views as to when the first revival might occur, with 50% contemplating that it might be possible in the 2075–2100 time frame (Chart 4).

Chart 4
figure9

(Q11) When do you think the first revival might occur?

In terms of the attributes that respondents would like to revive (Table 13), intellect is number one (89%), followed by personality (87%), capabilities and skills (77%), and emotion (76%).

Table 13 (Q12a) What kind of attributes would you like to revive?

Regarding the kinds of memories that respondents would like to revive (Table 14), an overwhelming percent (87%) said all memories, while others opted for important memories (10%), selected memories (9%), or no memories (3%).

Table 14 (Q12b) What kind of memories would you like to revive?

By far the biggest motivation respondents consider for the possibility of future revival is a desire to experience the future world (89%) as indicated in Table 15. Other reasons motivating about half of respondents are curiosity (58%), continuing to enjoy life with others (48%), maintaining a state of productivity (48%), and living more comfortably because disease cures may have been developed meanwhile (47%). Also important is the ability to be creative (44%), and to contribute to the lives of others (44%).

Table 15 (Q13) Why would you like to be revived in the future?

Sixty-one percent of respondents indicated (Table 16) that their principle concerns regarding revival are impairment or loss during cryopreservation (61%) and the technical feasibility of revival (61%). 43% are troubled by the possibility that memories may be lost and “not feeling like me.” About one third are concerned about the future state of the world (32%) and the cost of revival (27%).

Table 16 (Q14) My principle concerns regarding revival are…

Three-quarters of respondents (77%) appreciate that cryonics might bring more choice to the current societal approaches to death (Table 17). A majority also embrace the possibility of greater personal decision-making (66%) and the exercise of freedom (62%) regarding end of life choices.

Table 17 (Q15) Does cryonics bring any of these qualities to the way we approach death in society?

Regarding the legal treatment and general societal perception of death, half of respondents (49%) bemoan that death is a taboo that is not discussable (Table 18). Respondents also think that death is regulated (40%), non-agential (35%), and clinical and impersonal (33%).

Table 18 (Q16) The legal treatment and general societal perception of death is…

The overwhelming majority (90%) of respondents are most concerned about obtaining a good-quality cryopreservation in the final moments of their current physical body (Table 19). Beyond that, 37% are concerned about the availability of medical and emotional support, 35% about pain management, and 33% about the ability to identify, understand, and address decline.

Table 19 (Q17) What are you most concerned about in the final moments of your current physical body?

In terms of traditional ceremonial aspects regarding the final moments of their current physical body, over half (54%) indicated that their plan is whatever is appropriate at the time (Table 20). A quarter (24%) of respondents consider a celebration of life, 12% a non-religious funeral, 12% an obituary publication, and 9% a religious funeral.

Table 20 (Q18) Regarding ceremonial aspects, do you (friends/family) plan any of the following?

Respondents reflect varying degrees of familial support for their cryonics decision, with a quarter (23%) enjoying full support on a scale of 1–10. For others, family support is not relevant, or they receive little support or antagonism regarding their decision (Chart 5).

Chart 5
figure10

(Q19a) Does your family support your cryonics decision? Does not support (1) to Supports (10)

Respondents commenting on the supportiveness of their family regarding their cryonics decision reflected the themes of wishing that other family members would also enroll, and family member thoughts being divisive or irrelevant to member decisions (Chart 6).

Chart 6
figure11

(Q19b) Comments regarding your family supporting your cryonics decision?

Regarding the disposition of the body for those selecting neuro-cryopreservation (39% versus 53% for whole-body cryopreservation (Table 6)), 39% indicate a preference for donating it to research, 33% leaving decisions to the discretion of the cryopreservation facility, 19% cremation, and 11% burial (Table 21).

Table 21 (Q20) What disposition of your body do you prefer (if selecting neuro-cryopreservation)?

On the topic of spirituality and religion, 68% of respondents indicated that non-religious is a term that describes their views (Table 22). 41% identify with being supportive of empathy and compassion, 17% non-spiritual, 14% spiritual, and 6% religious. There is a diversity of views, and the largest identification is being non-religious, however cryonics is not incompatible with religiosity as 6% indicate. Some respondents indicate a holistic view of the world (17%), appreciation of yoga, mindfulness, etc. (17%), and a sense of being at harmony with the world (11%).

Table 22 (Q21) Do any of the following describe your views?

The more frequent adjectives used to describe the cryonics community (Chart 7) are hopeful, optimistic, small, intelligent, forward-thinking, and scientific. There is a strong affirmative theme of wanting to support and extend life for the self and others. There is also a realization that cryonics is currently a small community.

Chart 7
figure12

(Q22a) What are three adjectives you would use to describe the cryonics community?

A point of demographic diversity is the wide range of time over which individuals have been interacting with the cryonics community (Chart 8). The biggest category is 1–5 years, 5–10 years is the general average, and the range extends from under 1 year to over 60 years.

Chart 8
figure13

(Q22b) How long have you been interacting with the cryonics community?

In terms of who should pay for cryopreservation, three-quarters (76%) of respondents say that they think the individuals selecting cryopreservation should pay for it (Table 23). Half of respondents (52%) would like health insurance plans to offer more kinds of options regarding end of life choices such as cryopreservation. 19% support the idea of state or federal governments covering some portion of the cost of cryopreservation.

Table 23 (Q23) Who should pay for cryopreservation?
Table 24 (Q24c) Who is your cryonics provider?
Table 25 (26b) Gender identification (optional)

Respondents are generally happy with their cryonics provider, over half (53%) give a satisfaction rating of 8–10 (Chart 9).

Chart 9
figure14

(Q24a) Do you think your cryonics provider is doing a good job?Dissatisfied (1) to Satisfied (10)

Overwhelming, survey respondents would like their cryonics provider to be doing more research, regarding all facets of cryopreservation, patient support, and potential revival (Chart 10).

Chart 10
figure15

(Q24b) What would you like your cryonics provider to be doing?

Seventy percent of survey respondents indicated that they are enrolled members of a cryopreservation service. Enrolled respondents are with Alcor (65%), Cryonics Institute (22%), KrioRus (11%), and other (2%).

Final overall comments focused on respondents wanting more worldwide cryopreservation facilities to be established, wondering about the right cost for cryopreservation and affordable options for paying for it, more research to be conducted in all related areas, the community to be better-known and supported, and hope for the future (Chart 11).

Chart 11
figure16

(Q25) Any other comments?

The ages of respondents are diverse and well-represented across demographic groups with the heaviest weighting in the 30–40-year-old category (26%) as indicated in Chart 12. Twenty-two percent are 30 and under, 26% 30–40, 35% 40–60, and 30% 60 and over.

Chart 12
figure17

(Q26a) Demographic age (optional)

One area reflecting less diversity than others is gender identification. The cryonics community skews toward male, as 81% of respondents indicate (Table 25), with 17% female, and 1% other.

Regarding the highest level of completed education (Chart 13), 40% of respondents indicate having earned a college degree, 29% a master’s degree, 18% a high school degree, and 11% a PhD.

Chart 13
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(Q26c) Highest-level of education completed (optional), top designations

Career designations cited by respondents include a third in computer science (34%), 19% in business, 16% entrepreneurs, 12% in biology, 9% in medicine, 8% in physics, 7% in services, 4% in law, 2% respectively in education, engineering, and mathematics, and many other specific fields in a range of science, liberal arts, and humanitarian areas (Chart 14). The biggest categories are computer science, business and entrepreneurship, and biology, medicine, and physics. There are many other categories identified, for example politics, literature, journalism, humanities, services, trades, and other areas that were less in aggregation than the eleven top designations listed.

Chart 14
figure19

(Q26d) Field (optional), top designations

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Swan, M. Worldwide Cryonics Attitudes About the Body, Cryopreservation, and Revival: Personal Identity Malleability and a Theory of Cryonic Life Extension. SOPHIA 58, 699–735 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11841-019-0727-4

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Keywords

  • Cryonics
  • Corporeality
  • Cryopreservation
  • Revival
  • Biostasis
  • Personal identity