Endless Existence The Science of Cryonics

   By Wang Da & Jiahui


   For as long as humans have existed, they have yearned for immortality. From the pharaohs of Egypt and the emperors of China, to the medieval sorcerers and scientists of modern medicine, humankind has never ceased the quest for eternal life. The Ancient Egyptians routinely preserved corpses, creating mummies, believing that when the souls of the dead were resurrected, they would have a physical body to return to. But for thousands of years, not a single mummy has returned to life yet.


Resurrections through cryonics


   In May 2017, 49-year-old Zhan Wen Lian lost her life to cancer. Before her death, she and her family signed a document agreeing to preserve her body at -196 degrees Celsius in a liquid nitrogen tank, where it would await the day scientists succeed in finding a cure for cancer. When the time comes, so the theory goes, her body will be thawed and revived. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of achieving resurrections through cryonics once again sparked a heated debate.

   The concept of cryonics was first seen in The Jameson Satellite, a science-fiction story written by Neil R. Jones in 1931. In 1964, Robert Ettinger, a physicist dubbed by many as “father of cryonics,” became the first to discuss cryonics from a scientific perspective in his
book The Prospect of Immortality. Soon after, in 1967, American psychology professor James Bedford became the victim of an incurable cancer, and offered to be the first person in the world to undergo cryonics.


A complicated process


  Fifty years ago, when Professor Bedford was put under cryopreservation, the process was much simpler. Today, the process of cryonics involves complicated procedures lasting up to 60 hours. The very moment the subject’s heartbeat and breathing cease, they must be injected with anticoagulants, antioxidants, and nutrient supplements for their central nervous system, among other substances. Next, ice-cold brine will be injected into the circulatory system to cool down the body, and intubation is carried out. The subject is then connected to a ventilator and CPR machine to maintain the body’s blood and oxygen circulation and other physiological functions.



  The greatest obstacle is that when the body’s temperature reaches -5 degrees Celsius, the water within each cell freezes and destroys the cell membrane, leading to irreparable tissue damage. Thus, before the process begins, the body is injected with an anti-freezing agent made from a mixture of physiological saline and ethylene glycol. This maintains the cells in a jelly-like form, preventing them from turning to ice. Finally, the body is placed in a container filled with liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Celsius to be preserved.

   Though the technique of cryonics is still in its experimental stages, more than 3,000 people have been placed under cryopreservation within the last 50 years, and there are currently 1,250 more who are planning to preserve their bodies in the future.


Can the soul be preserved?


  According to the science of cryonics, our memories, character, and knowledge are all stored in our brains in the form of cell structures and chemicals. If we preserve all of that, and keep the brain and organ systems free of damage, then we will be able to put a “pause” on life itself. However, other experts believe that when the body is frozen, it causes extreme damage to higher-level brain activity; when it is thawed it will not be able to return to its original state. From a spiritual point of view, it is believed that a person’s soul departs the moment they die; scientists may preserve the body, but they cannot preserve the soul.

   Valeria Udalova, Director-General of Russian cryonics company KrioRus, announced in March 2017 that within the next five years it will be possible to “restore” cryopreserved human organs, and in 10 years, they will be able to “awaken” cryopreserved humans. If this becomes reality, will the person who wakes up be the same as the one who was previously alive?


Accepting the inevitability of life and death


  According to Buddhism, birth, aging, sickness and death are the four stages of life, as well as the four main forms of suffering. Even Sakyamuni Buddha, after achieving enlightenment, passed on, which manifested as the state of Mahaparinirvana, and he revealed to all living things the impermanence of life. As is written in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Padmasambhava said: “Untimely death can be averted through the methods taught for prolonging life. However, when the cause of death is the exhaustion of the natural lifespan, you are like a lamp which has run out of oil. There is no way of averting death by cheating it; you have to get ready to go.” Death is an inevitable part of life; struggling against it and chasing after eternal life will only result in suffering.

  Grandmaster JinBodhi said: “Death is a kind of renewal, growth and revitalization. When the flowers on a tree wither away, they transform into fruit, and when the fruit ripens, it too will begin to rot. One who understands this will no longer bear suffering due to loss. Our lives cannot exist in this moment forever; we are impermanent. What exists today could be gone tomorrow. When we understand this natural law, our point of view will change, our desires will change; we will no longer doggedly struggle against it, and we will no longer bear such sufferings because of it.”


Buddhist thoughts


   In his essay “The End of Life,” Master Hong Yi writes: “After a person has passed away, it is vital that the body not be moved. Although it may be unclean, do not wash immediately. Wait eight hours before bathing and putting new clothes on the body…. If it is moved within those eight hours, though the person cannot speak, they will be in pain.”



  According to Buddha’s teachings, a person’s consciousness may not leave the body until at least eight hours after death. During this time, if the deceased experiences any negative thoughts or upset whatsoever, they may fall into the “three evil paths.”

  In the first scroll of the Zhong Jing Zhuan Za Pi Yu, there is a story that goes thus: There was once a king who deeply believed in Buddhism. He built many temples and accumulated a huge amount of karmic merit, such that he would have been able to walk one of the three good paths after death. However, when he was about to pass away, his chamberlain entered a state of delirium and inadvertently dropped his fan on the king’s face. This caused the king much distress and pain which manifested in anger, resulting in him falling into the realm of animals. He was thus reborn as a snake.

   In the process of cryopreservation, once the subject’s breathing and heartbeat has stopped, scientists inject large amounts of drugs into the body, as well as induce the cells into a jelly-like state. However, according to the aforementioned teachings, the subject’s soul has not yet departed from the body at this point. From the perspective of the soul, would this process not be equivalent to a slow and extremely painful death?

   A paper published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences points out that brain activity can persist for more than 10 minutes after death. If this is true, would carrying out the freezing procedure on a subject that has only just fallen “asleep” cause them panic?

   Every individual has the power to choose how they approach death. The passing of the day, the wilting of the flower — these are natural phenomena. If humankind will stop at nothing to reverse the transition known as death, then what implications does this have for the direction this world is headed? And what could this mean for the future of humankind itself?