Cryonic Terror Management Theory

Have you ever wanted to live forever? What about having your body (or just your brain) cryogenically preserved before you die, so that once the technology becomes available you can return to life?

Whether this sounds appealing or not, I recommend you read this (long but extremely informative) post about cryonics. If you’re anything like me, up until now you would have mostly dismissed the notion with some variant of “sci-fi, cultish, and silly”, but that post left me with a more nuanced view of the issue.

In the end, though, I decided I don’t want to be preserved. I was sort of considering it after reading that post, until the – sudden, horrific – thought hit me: what if something went wrong? And I was conscious during my decades of dark, cold, immobility? Or, more realistically perhaps, if the reanimation was botched, and I woke up 100 years from now in agonizing pain, with limbs missing or reduced cognitive or emotional abilities? The post doesn’t address those possibilities. Nor does it do anything serious to address the expense involved (saying “$300 a year isn’t that expensive” really isn’t a good answer, considering the number of people living on the poverty line). Further, I think if a person decided to be preserved they may still want to put some provisions in place for their families, to grieve, and mourn them. A “funeral”, of sorts? Even knowing that the not-dead person is going to heaven wake up in 100 years, their family might still be sad that they’re gone for now.

Those quibbles aside (and these, by a BBC person), there was one bit that caught my eye, and which explains the title of this post. It was a fairly innocuous section in the middle, about the people waiting for you when you wake up – including, I thought, your great grand children.

At that point, my train of thought went like this: “I don’t know much about my great grand parents. My great grand kids probably won’t know much about me. That seems sad. In fact, I may not even have kids – that suddenly seems even sadder! I will just be gone, not even a memory left?! Oh but I might write a book. Or at least some research papers. That can be my legacy. Phew. Existential crisis averted.”

This is where this story links back to psychology. I am not the first person to have this existential experience.

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Sort of related. Nobody wants to just disappear.

Nor am I the first to write about it: Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski and their colleagues have developed something called Terror Management Theory, which is about this precise phenomenon. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about it to review it thoroughly here, so I am bringing it up just to… I don’t know, really? To point out one of the many joys of having spent 10+ years studying psychology? I’m not being sarcastic: having an experience (even an unpleasant one!) and then discovering that it is universal or interesting or important enough that somebody has dedicated time and effort to studying that particular experience, is sort of nice and gratifying. You might even say it reduces existential angst.

(More broadly, I guess this implies that I see some value in increased meta-cognition, knowing more about why, and having the mental tools for dealing with, how you experience the things you experience. Sounds extremely navel-gazing, but may be good for learning.)

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