Why Would You Choose To Have Your Head Frozen?


For some people, the idea of decapitation seems like the ultimate horror—a head without a body, a body without a head! It’s very strange, then, to think that having people cut off your head—at the right time, in the right way—might just save your life.

In cryonics—the experimental science of storing "dead" persons at very low temperatures in a way that may facilitate their potential revival at in the future—this is called "neuropreservation" or "neurosuspension." In this procedure, which cryonics organization Alcor first undertook in 1976, cryonicists store only the head of a neuropatient instead of preserving the whole body.

I am a "cryonicist," meaning I have signed up for cryonic preservation (in my case, this "neuro," head-only type). The science, though partly speculative, really matters to me. My new book Frozen to Life: A Personal Mortality Experiment explores the radical science and philosophy of brain, mind, and "self" involved. It also dives into my personal journey to this heady, but not hasty, decision.


Most philosophers (and scientists) think that the "self" (or whatever you like to call what makes you you) is generated as an emergent property of the physical processes of your brain. So, your brain is the crucial physical part of you that technicians will need to retain and preserve after your death if your self is ever again going to enjoy the warm glow of sunshine. And it’s easier to retain your brain within the protective casing of your skull than to remove it, risking damage.

Of course, many cryonicists choose whole-body preservation. For non-cryonicists, that choice evokes less revulsion than head-only; strong social taboos against cadaver dismemberment persist. To me, however, neuro makes good sense. Being much smaller than a whole body, a head is easier and cheaper (for example, it requires only one-tenth as much liquid nitrogen) to preserve and store efficiently. Intuitively, revival from whole-body is more plausible; in actuality, provisioning and connecting a new body is far from being the biggest technical challenge cryonic revival will involve.


To maximize your chances of successful preservation, it’s best to die near to a cryonics facility. If you signed up with Alcor, Scottsdale, AZ., is a good place to breathe your last breath. After a doctor pronounces you brain dead, Alcor’s standby team takes over. First, they place you in an ice bath to begin the cooling process and to slow cell degradation. Then they attach a "thumper"—a mechanical chest compression device—to your body to keep blood circulating, oxygenating your brain. Anticoagulants such as heparin, introduced intravenously, help stop blood clotting. At that point, the team considers you "stabilized" and ready for transport back to Alcor’s facility.

There, surgeons cool the body further to around 0°C, before performing the neuroseparation procedure (cutting through the neck to remove the head). They wash out the blood and replace it with a "cryoprotectant" solution containing antifreeze-type chemicals. After surgeons have attached a monitoring device and placed the cephalon (head) in a "neurocan," it is ready for a multistage cooling process, which eventually takes it down to the final storage temperature of -196°C.


If you want to keep a brain’s structure intact and potentially recoverable, freezing it won’t work well. Instead, you need to "vitrify" it. Blood plasma is watery, and ice crystals rupture cells. The heavy concentration of cryoprotectant and careful cooling promote a smooth, glass-like vitrified tissue state.

But what use is a vitrified head? It’s true that we can’t bring the dead back to life, and also that no living human head has ever been re-attached to a donor body. However, we aren’t discussing doing those things using today’s technologies; we’re talking about trying to put a human brain "on pause" so that, when the necessary technologies and procedures arrive, future medics can reboot it.

To do that, they would likely use advanced forms of nanomedicine. Repairing fine-scale damage in the wiring of a brain—what neuroscientists call its connectome—is currently impossible, but who knows what the future holds? A suitably repaired and rebooted brain might find itself getting to grips with a newly cloned body (or a cybernetic one, or a convincingly virtual one).


A recent New York Times article discussed the case of Kim Suozzi, who died in 2013 of brain cancer at the age of just 23, and was neuropreserved at Alcor. While she was fundraising to be cryopreserved, her father had disapproved of her decision, saying to her, "We don’t get to live forever, Kim." But cryonicists don’t generally expect to "live forever." Cryonicists don’t speak of death with the finality that most people do. We see life and death on a spectrum, with true death being the complete dissolution of the information-carrying capacity of the brain. Cryptographer Ralph Merkle coined the term "information-theoretic death" to describe the absolute dead-end of the life/death spectrum.

The debate about cryonics is only just getting started. We’re so used to our customary ways of dealing with the dead, that the idea they might not be irretrievably gone may come as a bit of a shock. Nevertheless, perhaps it’s about time we at least took a more nuanced view of death. After all, people used to think that death occurred the moment the heart stopped beating, and that turned out to be woefully incorrect.

And, of course, the soul is something of a stumbling block to changing our approach to death. If you think that some essential, non-material part of you survives your death anyway, why would you go to all the trouble of having your head frozen in the first place?

These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years

Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner

The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.


Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.

If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.


Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.

While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.


Woman doing yoga with her dog.

Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.


Person running in field with a dog.

While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.


Woman cuddling her dog.

Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.


Large bulldog licking a laughing man.

Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.


Man high-fiving his dog.

Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.


Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.

The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.


Man running in surf with dog.

The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.


A young boy having fun with his dog.

Though one 2003 study found that there is no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7-12 year olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.


More from mental floss studios