There’s a thin line between being frozen to death and being severely chilled to save your life. For decades, doctors have deliberately cooled the bodies of some patients to temperatures ranging from about 70 to 90 degrees, because the cold slows down or halts the heartbeat and other body processes, allowing more time for surgery. (Outside the operating room, humans typically die when their internal temperature drops below about 75 degrees.)
But now, as Judith Shulevitz writes in “Science Is Changing: What It Means to Be Dead,” in the New Republic, new research is being done into cryogenics, an extreme form of this big chill. For example, physicians at the University of Pittsburgh are ready to begin an experiment in which icy saltwater would be injected into the veins of people who are almost certainly about to die, dropping their body temperature to an unprecedented 50 degrees for several hours to give doctors a chance to save them and then warm them back up.
This kind of research is bringing reality closer to the old sci-fi plotline of long-term suspended animation – where a person freezes but does not die, and reawakens years or centuries later. “I think we’re quite a distance” from that, says Lance Becker, a leading hypothermia researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. But long-term cryogenic preservation is “theoretically quite possible,” he says, and “I have no doubt that at some point we will do it.”
This is not cryonic preservation – freezing and storing dead bodies in hopes that future treatment will make some kind of resurrection possible. This is cryogenics – putting living patients into a long-term state so cold that it resembles death but is more like hibernation. Shulevitz discusses the legal, moral and practical questions that arise from cryogenics, as well as the less-than-appealing aspects of being reanimated after a few hundred years of the big chill. “Life is about more than sheer physical or even mental existence,” she writes. You could awaken from a cryogenic state to find yourself “in a glorious utopia or a world of trouble … and unless key members of your social circle froze themselves with you, you’re going to be very lonely.”
Breaking bad habits
When people want to change their bad habits – not flossing, procrastinating, drinking too much – “most of us only want to stop our most glaring self-destructive patterns,” psychotherapist Richard O’Connor writes in his new book. “Otherwise, we’re quite fine, thank you.” But that narrow approach doesn’t work, he says: “There is no way to stop a bad habit without facing what it means and what it’s done to you.” In “Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Overcome Addictions, Conquer Self-Destructive Behavior,” he explores a wide range of undesirable behavior patterns and a similarly wide range of tools for overcoming them.
O’Connor, whose previous books include “Undoing Depression” and “Undoing Perpetual Stress,” was for 14 years the director of a nonprofit mental health clinic. He draws from real-life examples as well as research papers to examine such varied concepts as self-hate, borderline personalities, mindfulness, burnout and 12-step programs. But the book’s overriding piece of advice is that willpower is a skill you can learn, like tennis or typing. “You have to train your nervous system as you would train your muscles. … You have to take yourself to the psychic gym – but with the certainty that each time you practice an alternative behavior, you’ve made it easier to do next time.”