Most people understand cryonics to be the freezing of bodies after death, and they’re mostly correct. Cryopreservation stores biological material at an incredibly low temperature for use at a later date. The main goal of cryonics is to preserve brain functions before it’s undergone irreversible damage in the hopes that technological advancements will be able to revive it in the future. This requires quick action once the heart has stopped, not to mention a relatively clean death (brain splatters need not apply.) Depending on which facility the freezing takes place, the price tag for suspension can cost anywhere from $12,000 for neuropreservation (just your head), to $30,000 for full body storage or $200,000 for full body storage and a team of medical experts on standby, ready to start the process as soon as you go.
I recently spoke with two female cryonicists about the stigma of selfishness around choosing suspension, the legitimacy of their beliefs and why thinking you can become immortal is so 90s.
Chana Phaedra is a 34-year-old president and researcher at Advanced Neural Biosciences in Portland, OR. She signed up for cryonics after landing a full-time job with Alcor, one of the United States leading cryonics organizations.
Shannon Vyff is a 38-year-old mother of four and author of 21st Century Kids, a children’s book that addresses cryonics. She became a cryonicist at age 21, while experiencing a high-risk pregnancy. She has continued to sign up her entire family for cryonic preservation, including her 13-month-old baby.
It seems like a majority of cryonicists don’t want their names out there as being connected to it. Why is that?
Chana: In terms of scientists that’s especially true. We have probably a disproportionate number of PhD members both at Alcor and CI (Cryonics Institute), and most are not public about their cryonics arrangements. As far as wanting to do science in the field, most scientists shy away from it because they don’t want that stigma. Part of it is there is an actual stigma from the American Cryobiological Association. They will not allow anyone as a member who has publicly supported cryonics. So there is a real-world consequence.
Shannon: I thought I had heard that they recently have changed that in the past year. But that they still don’t completely get it.
C: Yeah, you know there’s been a little cross over. I have heard of people like Ben Best attending their conference, so that seems like we’re making some inroads in terms of being not accepted but tolerated, I guess.
What is the reason for them to not allow cryonicists?
C: We’re confused about that. It seems like they’re ok with cryopreserving any organ in the body except the brain, because that’s what it really boils down to in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. It’s really that we are focused on the seed of human personality and consciousness, which is the brain and cryopreserving that and to some people, that seems to be kind of a moral quandary.
S: One thing I’ve seen is you know, sperm can be frozen and viable; an embryo can be frozen and viable. Yes, they cost a lot, but it’s shown to work. With cryonics, it costs a lot, and it’s all completely hypothetical whether it works. It’s based on some science, but it’s not proven to work.
That’s what I think it boils down to- that it’s a scam or cryonics organizations are trying to get money, and it gives it a negative view. That’s something that is hard for people who are members with their family or colleagues because it looks like they’re selfish, and they’re wanting to live longer than they’re supposed to live, or they’re wasting their money when they could give their money for more useful things.
For me, I’ve heard all of those things, and I still have money earmarked for my family and charity. I feel like if cryonics works I could still give back, work on things, and do good things.
So the selfish cryonic characters- they do exist on some level.
S: Yeah, there are some cryonicists that I cringe when I hear them talk!
If you can’t deny that, what can be done to show that not all cryonicists are selfish human beings?
C: I think Shannon’s doing exactly what all cryonicists should do to combat that image, and that’s get your family involved. Make it a family affair. Get your friends involved if you can. We probably haven’t done ourselves a lot of favors being overly cerebral; you know, kind of nerdy cryonicists trying to push our ‘agenda’ as it were, through logic and reason and debate when that’s obviously not the path to enlightenment, in this sense.
We’ll make a lot more progress when we start focusing on people and families and keeping families together and the possibility of saving lives.
S: I think a very important point is there are about two thousand people signed up to do cryonics, is that still correct?
C: Yeah, I think just over.
S: So it’s a very small community. I’ve been involved in other small communities; you always have some selfish individuals. Even in a PTA, you always have some people who are abrasive or even devastating to the rest of the organization. I think it’s hard because cryonics is so small. Most cryonicists aren’t that way- but there have been a few people who have been very out in their extreme views and selfishness and because of the Internet, people can write whatever they want, and it stays up.
C: They stumble upon that one person’s opinion, see it and think it’s every cryonicist.
What are the broader goals of cryonics than just never dying?
C: A lot of things I like about cryonics and life extension technologies is that it makes us more forward thinking; we have to be more responsible for not only ourselves, our friends and families but for the planet, for example. That’s not something you can just pass off on other people anymore. You’ll be there, and you want to personally make sure that everyone survives and continues to survive. I think that would be a huge impact of extending human life-we wouldn’t have this phenomenon of future problems not being our own.
Besides the stigma of selfishness-which I think is not the right perspective, but it’s a very common one- to me, it’s about maintaining time with your family, time with your friends, more time to live and love and hopefully change the world for the better.
The idea of death and dying- does that even enter into your view of cryonics?
C: Oh yeah. I don’t identify myself as an Immortalist. I think that’s probably impossible. That’s a word that we’ve seen…not going away but definitely making less of an appearance.
S: Yeah, I wouldn’t consider myself (an Immortalist). Some people are Transhumanists or they don’t sign up for cryonics because they believe that there is going to be the self-recursive A.I., and we’re going to end aging, and we’re going to be able to upload, and they’re never going to have to die. There are people who are creating the computer god, I guess.
There are some that strongly believe that. I’ve met them and talked with them, but I also don’t think that’s possible if you look at that. Personally, like I said before I think cryonics has a very low chance of working for different reasons.
My other point about the word Immortalist is that I am one of the directors of what was formerly the Immortality Institute, and now it’s called LongeCity. A couple of years ago, we voted to change the name. So you do see that there’s more a going away from that word. I think it was more popular in the 90s to use the term ‘immortal’, but overall I think there’s been kind of a movement away to be more realistic about that.
C: I’m going to disagree with Shannon on one point. I think cryonics is quite feasible and has a very high probability of being successful in the future. But to get back to the point of immortality, I don’t identify as an Immortalist. I like to tell people I just don’t want fate or physics to decide when I go. I want to decide when I go. I’m actually a strong proponent of the right to die-one of the reasons I moved here to Oregon. I think people should have that choice. And that’s all this is, it’s the choice to live instead of the choice to die.
S: I got to vote on that when I lived there!
C: That’s awesome! I mean I may decide that I want to die eventually, but I think that power should be in my hands when to make that decision, not just fall apart as the course of nature because it’s always happened, and everybody says that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Beyond that, there are existential risks. There are groups out there like Lifeboat Foundation who are forward thinking, looking and trying to see what the risks are in terms of all of humanity getting wiped out, for example, and then trying to mitigate those risks as well. Those are real risks. Again, you have to have a long-life extension mentality to even really care about those kinds of questions otherwise you think “Well, I’m going to be dead so it doesn’t matter. We’ll let you figure that out.”
Life extensionists take a much longer-range vision approach, and they want to start figuring out what the risks are now; how we can start mitigating now, and I think that’s really important work. Even if we don’t make it into the very far-distant future, we’re all here laying the groundwork for people who will be there. I think that’s super important and not selfish at all.
How defined are you by your choice to be a cryonicist?
C: For me, that’s an interesting question because I go to work in a lab and do research that’s specific to cryonics. So it’s a huge part of my everyday existence. To the extent that I have time beyond my professional obligations, I am as involved as I can be in terms of communicating with Alcor and CI about casework.
In the sense that I also am involved in maintaining the community among cryonicists, I remain more involved than the average member, but I think that’s changing a little. People seem to be realizing this isn’t just a consumer product. They seem to be realizing that we’re so small that you have to be involved.
S: Cryonics for me- it’s not my job. I’m very much a full-time parent with four kids, and I take very seriously teaching my kids. But I also do a lot of volunteer work leading Le Leche groups, and I volunteer with my kid’s school. So I’m a homemaker I guess, which allows me as a hobby to be kind of a cryonics advocate. So that’s how I adopted it-as a hobby because I made friends and have been trying to show a different side that cryonics isn’t all crazy, that cryonicists are normal people.
Are you more cautious about your health and safety?
S: Not all cryonicists live more healthy or don’t take chances with extreme sports. Some cryonicists eat very healthy. They’re very careful because they’re going to live longer or so their preservation can be better.
Others see it as “Well, I’ve got this insurance so it doesn’t matter if I smoke all the time or they’re living it high and going out and being more risk-taking, I guess. So you don’t see a common thread through cryonicists.
C: I am kind of an adrenaline junkie myself. I’ve jumped out of planes and gone rock-climbing. I love go-karts. I do kind of live for the almighty adrenaline rush. It’s a lot of fun. But I’ve made a couple of conscious decisions that I probably wouldn’t have made before. For example, I wanted a motorcycle for a really long time, and I don’t think I’m going to do that because it is one of those things where you do get cerebral, look up the statistics and weigh the consequences. I went from that fear mentality as a child to definitely ‘I love life’, and I know that this is the life I have to live right now. I’m relatively young right now, so if rejuvenation technologies don’t come through in my lifetime, I’d better lived it up while I am young and healthy. I’m the kind of person who takes that approach.
I’m not going to miss opportunities because I’m afraid of dying. I’ll get on an airplane where as a lot of cryonicists and life extensionists won’t, for example. Statistically, it’s a low risk, but if you do go down you’re pretty much guaranteed information theoretic death. You’re kind of obliterated in that situation, nothing to recover. So that’s a big risk. But again, I’m more of the mentality that I don’t want to miss opportunities that are right in front of me.
Shannon, what’s your children’s view of death?
S: They all have very different views about death. One of them I think fears it more than the others and was really into having their cryonics bracelet and saying they were a cryonicist. But now interestingly, they don’t care about it as much. I’ve got another one that is pretty sure that anyone that they date would have to be intelligent enough to do cryonics. They’re like, “Why wouldn’t you? You must not be very intelligent if you wouldn’t.” I have one that’s never cared so much about dying or that death’s natural, but they also don’t care about being a cryonicist because that’s just natural, it’s what we do. It’s a very different view.
I have no idea what they’ll do as adults; if they’ll stay cryonicists or start their own families and be cryonicists, but I do know that it has caused a lot more talks about extreme future and technology. I guess I would be thankful for that; to be able to weave that into some conversations at the dinner table.
How do you sign up children for cryonics?
S: They were just kind of raised with it. The first conversations might have been around when they were 4 years old. We all know that when they’re older, it’s their decision. We also asked, “If something were to happen, would you want to be frozen?” at certain times over the years, even when they’ve been teens, and they’ve said they don’t mind being preserved. But it’s not like it’s been a yes or no. I did sign them up when they were children, but I do ask them what their feelings are on it and also accept that they’ll make their own decisions after they’re 18, too.
C: I’ve seen a number of different approaches. Some people sign up infants and then give them an opt-out later. You know, “It’s still your decision, but I’m going to make the decision before you’re capable of doing so for you to be cryopreserved in case anything terrible happens before you reach your age of consent.” As far as cryonics organizations are concerned a parent can do that up until 18 years of age.
I’ve also seen parents and children who want their kids signed up, and one parent doesn’t. That can throw a wrench in the works.
S: I’ve talked to couples like that, where I’ve been contacted because someone wants me to talk someone into that. My advice is that you’ve got to respect the other parent. Don’t make it an issue where you’re fighting over it with the kid and just wait until that kid can make their own decisions. It’s just not worth it to put that angst or anger on a child or have them be in the middle of any argument.
Chana, you co-authored a piece about the “hostile wife phenomenon,” which explores the anger and angst that occur from those decisions. It seems to often be women who have a problem with cryonics, and that speaks to why the face of it is typically rich white men. How are you making it a space for more women?
C: I don’t think we’re doing anything super special to make that happen. It’s sort of happening on its own. Part of what I see at the members meetings is there are more girls.
S: Yes, that’s true from the numbers. I was really impressed that there were more girls the last time.
C: I was super surprised, too. I was expecting a room full of boys. It was probably 20-25% (women) the first year, and I‘ve seen that proportion grow. I think it’s kind of a historical legacy-the ‘hostile wife phenomenon’-because people who signed up many years ago didn’t grow up with the concept in their minds. So they came to it as adults and already found their life partners. It was a new and intrusive thing that got injected into their relationships. Any new and intrusive thing can make people have a hostile reaction. When that thing is cryonics and comes with this potential to live life in the future without you or be around people who are all cryonicists as well, and you don’t think that’s something you’re interested in, then your spouse has this whole new group of people they’re spending time with and potentially some money. Anything can cause a riff in people, and cryonics seems to amplify it.
That said, now that we’ve seen so many teenagers and young adults growing up with these ideas and the potential for technology to expand human life and getting involved at such young ages, they’re building their lives around it. Like Shannon’s kids- they’re seeking partners who they have that in common. So that’s a really big change I’ve seen over the years. People are coming into cryonics in relationships, either they signed up individually and found each other through the community or there are just more people who are open to persuasion in building relationships with them.
S: When I was dating, I just told people I was a cryonicist and didn’t follow up with anybody who made fun of it or thought it was crazy. So I guess you can see people doing that, but I’ve also seen couples where one wants to do it, and it’s a brand-new thing, and the other is like ‘That’s crazy, why would you do that?’ Or money is an issue. Even if you can do it very reasonably, like with CI where there’s no upfront money, it’s just coming from the insurance. But I’ve seen this before, where the wife is like ‘Well why would you give $28,000 to them and not me?’ And that can be hard if they believe that there’s a chance of it working. Some cryonicists are ok with that it might be just them and there might not be anyone else that they know.
C: That touches on an important point as well. Even if a partner is on board and thinks this is a good idea, we often say you don’t have to be rich to be a cryonicists, your life insurance pays for it, blah, blah, blah, and you know it might be easy for one person, but two or three or five times isn’t easy anymore. If you’re talking a whole family, it does get really expensive really quickly.
So the cost thing- life insurance is used as a way to promote it being affordable?
C: Yeah, there are still membership fees. For example, at Alcor, your membership fees and comprehensive member standby-these are things that make Alcor more expensive than CI. Standby is part and parcel with your membership and there’s the patient-care trust fund. A portion of your cryopreserve funds are set aside in a separate trust to maintain you indefinitely, and theoretically, those funds are also for future needs like resuscitation and revitalization. So that’s more money; you have to have a larger insurance policy to cover those costs.
What it really comes down to is that you are extreme optimists. That must be a struggle to fight against the pessimism of life because most people are optimistic to a point. How optimistic are you, not just if cryonics is going to work but that this planet is going to be ok, and that it’s worth keeping people around for?
C: If I had lived two thousand years ago I probably wouldn’t have thought that this future would be as awesome as it is. I probably would have thought there would still be a bunch of murderous marauders killing each other like there were then. Look at how things have turned out. Arguably, this is the most peaceful time in human history, and we have the potential to improve upon that considerably. Yes, by definition cryonicists are extreme optimists.
S: Back to why I wanted to be a cryonicist-looking at history and seeing how many advances we’ve had in medicine and in technology- it’s just really always made me want to see five hundred or a thousand years in the future. I guess I’ve just always had that idea that there will be a future, or it’d be interesting to see what it’s like. We can’t tell what it’s like, but we can make all sorts of guesses based on certain technologies now. No one truly predicted the changes the Internet would make or smart phones, and it’s always made me very interested in the way things are going to turn out.
Like Chana was saying, it seems to me like things are getting better. I was reading Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, trying to make that case to some people that there is less violence today. It can be very difficult.
C: Yeah, that’s a pretty thick book to push at people. It’s an excellent book.
S: I do have some relatives who are really pessimistic and I kind of see that they’ve always been pessimistic in thinking that these are end of the world times. They’ve never really changed that viewpoint and to me- I just think that people keep advancing. The world keeps going, there is still going to be problems to work on, but we really have solved a lot of things now. Sure we have traffic but right now we’re working on cars that can communicate with each other, so we can eliminate traffic or just using some of our tech to alleviate some of the problems. I think we have a small incremental kind of advancement in tech, and I think that’d be fascinating to see where we’ve gotten five hundred or a thousand years in the future.
Sarah Wambold is a writer and funeral director living in Austin, TX.