Urban: Why Cryonics Makes Sense


Why Cryonics Makes Sense

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You’re on an airplane when you hear a loud sound and things start violently shaking. A minute later, the captain comes on the speaker and says:

There’s been an explosion in the engine, and the plane is going to crash in 15 minutes. There’s no chance of survival. There is a potential way out—the plane happens to be transferring a shipment of parachutes, and anyone who would like to use one to escape the plane may do so. But I must warn you—the parachutes are experimental and completely untested, with no guarantee to work. We also have no idea what the terrain will be like down below. Please line up in the aisle if you’d like a parachute, and the flight attendants will give you one, show you how to use it and usher you to the emergency exit where you can jump. Those who choose not to take that option, please remain in your seat—this will be over soon, and you will feel no pain.

What would you do?


When Robert Ettinger was a kid in the 1930s, he read a lot of science fiction, and he assumed that with the world advancing the way it was, scientists would surely have a cure for aging at some point during his lifetime. He would live to see a world where sickness was a thing of the past and death was something people chose to do voluntarily, at a time of their choosing.11← New to WBW? Open these.

But thirty years later, aging and involuntary death were still very much a thing, and Ettinger, by then a physics professor, realized that science might not solve these problems in time for him to reap the benefits. So he started thinking about how to hack the system.

If, rather than being buried or cremated after his death, he could instead be frozen in some way—then whenever the scientists did eventually get around to conquering mortality, they’d probably also have the tools and know-how to resuscitate him, and he could have the last laugh after all.

In 1962, he wrote about this concept in a book called The Prospects of Immortality, and the cryonics movement was born.

The first person to give cryonics a try was James Bedford, a psychology professor who died of cancer in 1967 at the age of 73 and is doing his thing in a vat of liquid nitrogen in Arizona as you read this. Others slowly began to follow, and today, there are over 300 people hanging out in vats of liquid nitrogen.

Now let’s pause for a second. A year ago, I knew almost nothing about cryonics, and my impressions of it were something like this sentence:

Cryonics, or cryogenics, is the morbid process of freezing rich, dead people who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to bring them back to life, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

Then I started learning about it. It’s your fault—cryonics is one of the potential-future-post-topics people email me about most, and it’s something at least five readers have brought up in conversation when I’ve met them in person. And as I began to read about cryonics, I soon learned that a lot of the words in my italicized assumption sentence weren’t correct.

So let’s work our way through the sentence as we go over exactly what cryonics is and how it works. We’ll start with this part:

Cryonics, or cryogenics, is the morbid process of freezing rich, dead people who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to bring them back to life, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

It turns out that this is like saying, “Wingsuit flying, or meteorology, is the sport of flying through the air using a wingsuit.” Meteorology is the study of what happens in the atmosphere, which includes how wind works, and wingsuit flying is a process that harnesses the wind—and you’d be an odd person if you thought they were the same thing.

Likewise, cryogenics is a branch of physics that studies the production and effects of very low temperatures, while cryonics is the practice of using very low temperatures to try to preserve a human being. Not the same thing.

Next, we have a string of three misleading words to talk about:

Cryonics is the morbid process of freezing rich, dead people who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to bring them back to life, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

We’ll address these three words by going through how cryonics works, starting at the beginning.

So you decide you want to be a cryonicist. Here are the steps:

Step 1) Pick a company

There are four major companies that provide cryonics services—Alcor in Arizona, Cryonics Institute (CI) in Michigan, American Cryonics Society (ACS) in California, and KrioRus in Russia. KrioRus is the newest option and quickly up-and-coming, but the two big boys are Alcor and CI (ACS doesn’t have their own storage facilities—they store with CI).

From my perusing, it seems like Alcor is the slightly-more-legit and fancier of the two, while CI (which was started by Robert Ettinger, the guy who launched the movement) is more affordable and gives off more of a mom-and-pop vibe. Both are nonprofit, and each has about 150 people in storage. Alcor has a little over 1,000 “members” (i.e. people who will one day be in storage), and CI has around half that number.

Step 2) Become a member

To become a cryonicist, you need to fill out some paperwork, sign some stuff and get it notarized, and pay for three things: an annual membership fee, a transport fee to get your body to the facility after you die, and a treatment/storage/revival fee.

Alcor’s annual membership fee is about $700, and their transport fee is bundled together with the treatment/storage/revival fee—together they cost $200,000. Alcor gives you the option of ditching your body and just freezing your brain (this is called “neuropreservation”), which brings the price down to $80,000.

CI’s annual membership fee is $120 (or a one-time fee of $1,250 for a lifetime membership) and the treatment, etc. costs $35,000 ($28,000 for lifetime members). This is so much cheaper than Alcor for two main reasons:

First, it doesn’t include the transport. If you live near the facility, you can save a lot of money. If not, you’ll need to go through their partner for a transport contract, which costs $95,000 ($88,000 for lifetime members).

Second, Alcor uses more than half of their large fee to fund what they call their Patient Care Trust. Back in the 70s, there were more cryonics companies, and some of them went bankrupt, which meant their frozen people stopped being frozen, which was a not ideal outcome. Alcor’s trust is a backup fund to make sure their “patients” won’t be affected by something like a company financial crisis.

Step 3) Get a life insurance policy in the name of your new cryonics company

Sounds shady, right? But it also makes sense. Both Alcor and CI are small companies on a pretty tight budget and neither can afford to offer a payment plan to be hopefully paid out by your estate or your relatives. On the patient end, unless you’re rich, cryonics fees are huge, and a life insurance policy guaranteed to pay your full cryonics fee forces you to save for this fee throughout your life. For young people, even sizable life insurance policies are pretty cheap—with CI, you could be totally covered for as little as $300/year ($120 annual membership, $180 life insurance policy to cover the main fee). Even for Alcor’s more expensive package, costs shouldn’t exceed $100/month.

Those fees aren’t nothing, but the whole life insurance thing, at least when it comes to younger people, pretty effectively ejects “rich” from our black and red sentence. If it costs the same as cable or a cigarette habit, you don’t need to be rich to pay for it.

Step 4) Put on your bracelet and go on living your life

Cryonics members are given a bracelet and a necklace, etched with instructions and contact info, and encouraged to wear one at all times, so if you suddenly die, whoever finds you will know to notify the company.

Step 5) Die

Okay here’s where things get tricky. We think of the divide between life and death as a distinct boundary, and we believe that at any given point, a person is either definitively alive or definitively dead. But let’s examine that assumption for a second:

Let’s first talk about what it means when a person is “doomed” from a health standpoint. We can all agree that what constitutes someone being doomed depends on where, and when, they are. A three-year-old with advanced pneumonia in 1740 would probably have been doomed, while the same child with the same condition today might be fully treatable. The same story could be said of the fate of someone who falls badly ill in a remote village in Malawi compared with their fate if they were in London instead. “Doomed” depends on a number of factors.

That the same thing can be said of “dead” is at first pretty unintuitive. But Alcor’s CEO Max More puts it this way: “Fifty years ago if you were walking along the street and someone keeled over in front of you and stopped breathing you would have checked them out and said they were dead and disposed of them. Today we don’t do that, instead we do CPR and all kinds of things. People we thought were dead 50 years ago we now know were not.”2

Today, dead means the heart has been stopped for 4-6 minutes, because that’s how long the brain can go without oxygen before brain death occurs. But Alcor, in its site’s Science FAQ, explains that “the brain ‘dies’ after several minutes without oxygen not because it is immediately destroyed, but because of a cascade of processes that commit it to destruction in the hours that follow restoration of warm blood circulation. Restoring circulation with cool blood instead of warm blood, reopening blocked vessels with high pressure, avoiding excessive oxygenation, and blocking cell death with drugs can prevent this destruction.”3 The site goes on to explain that “with new experimental treatments, more than 10 minutes of warm cardiac arrest can now be survived without brain injury. Future technologies for molecular repair may extend the frontiers of resuscitation beyond 60 minutes or more, making today’s beliefs about when death occurs obsolete.”

In other words, what we think of as “dead” actually means “doomed, under the current circumstances.” Someone fifty years ago who suffered from cardiac arrest wasn’t dead, they were doomed to die because the medical technology at the time couldn’t save them. Today, that person wouldn’t be considered dead yet because they wouldn’t be doomed yet. Instead, someone today “dies” 4-6 minutes after cardiac arrest, because that happens to be how long someone can currently go before modern technology can no longer help them.

Cryonicists view death not as a singular event, but as a process—one that starts when the heart stops beating and ends later at a point called “the information-theoretic criterion for death”—let’s call it “info death”—when the brain has become so damaged that no amount of present or future technology could restore it to its original state or have any way to retrieve its information.

Here’s an interesting way to think about it: Imagine a patient arriving in an ambulance to Hospital A, a typical modern hospital. The patient’s heart stopped 15 minutes before the EMTs arrived and he is immediately pronounced dead at the hospital. What if, though, the doctors at Hospital A learned that Hospital B across the street had developed a radical new technology that could revive a patient anytime within 60 minutes after cardiac arrest with no long-term damage? What would the people at Hospital A do?

Of course, they would rush the patient across the street to Hospital B to save him. If Hospital B did save the patient, then by definition the patient wouldn’t actually have been dead in Hospital A, just pronounced dead because Hospital A viewed him as entirely and without exception doomed.

What cryonicists suggest is that in many cases where today a patient is pronounced dead, they’re not dead but rather doomed, and that there is a Hospital B that can save the day—but instead of being in a different place, it’s in a different time. It’s in the future.

That’s why cryonicists adamantly assert that cryonics does not deal with dead people—it deals with living people who simply need to be transferred to a future hospital to be saved. They believe that in many cases, today’s corpse is tomorrow’s patient (which is why they call their frozen clients “patients” instead of “corpses” or “remains”), and they view their work as essentially “extended emergency medicine.”4

But it’s emergency medicine with an important caveat. Today’s technology has no way to revive a cryonically-suspended patient, so it isn’t considered a medical procedure by the law but rather a weird kind of coffin—i.e. if you cryopreserve someone who hasn’t yet been pronounced dead, it’s seen by the law as homicide. Even if the patient is terminally ill beyond any hope and adamantly doesn’t want to deteriorate further before being cryopreserved, it’s not an option—at least not under current laws (laws that some are trying to change). This puts cryonicists in a tough bind—and it’s exactly where that differing definition of death comes in handy.

The law does not see death as a process. For a long time, legal death in the US was considered to occur when a person’s heartbeat and breathing stopped. As modern medical procedures like CPR and defibrillators started to allow those patients to be resuscitated, the law had to change the definition of legal death to include “irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain.”5 The old “heartbeat and breathing” definition of legal death is now called “clinical death,” a middle ground point where there’s an obligation to attempt resuscitation in most cases but where a patient can also have a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order in place (common with terminally ill patients).2 In DNR cases, a doctor or nurse will pronounce a clinically dead patient to be legally dead—even though a resuscitation effort could still revive them.

This is a critical fact for cryonics. Cryonics technicians have to wait until legal death to begin their work on a patient, but with the help of a patient’s DNR order, they can start the process right after the heart stops, well before any brain damage sets in.

So this is the window for cryonics:

Death chart

Which brings us back to our list, where we can now clarify what we really mean with Step 5:

Step 5) Legally Die

You legally dying is a key step along the way here, so don’t mess it up. You can do it the good way, the bad way, or the really bad way.

The good way: Something predictable where you’re in a cliché deathbed situation, like cancer. This allows you to get yourself on a plane to either Scottsdale (Alcor) or Michigan (CI) and into one of the specifically designated hospice care facilities that the cryonics company regularly works with. This is important because cryonics is highly controversial within the mainstream medical community and often not well-regarded or well-understood. As a result, some hospitals and hospice care facilities are “cryonics friendly” and others are not (those that aren’t have been known to make it difficult for cryonics staff to do what they need to do or deny them the same privileges organ transplant specialists get in a hospital). Once you’re in hospice care, the cryonics company can put staff on standby around the clock, so that the second you legally die, they can be there to start the treatment.

The bad way: Something sudden and unexpected, like a heart attack, where at best, someone is there and can contact the cryonics company as you’re rushed to the hospital so they can meet you there, or worse, where you’re dead for a few hours or even longer before anyone finds you. In these circumstances, the cryonics company will do the best they can. Your brain will be in worse shape than ideal when you go into cryopreservation, but again, who knows what future technology will be able to accomplish, and as long as you’re still somewhere in the “cryonics window” and still in the process of dying, not yet having reached info death, there remains hope.

The really bad way: A violent accident or something where your brain ends up badly damaged. In the worst of these cases, there’s not much cryonics can do to help—like the Alcor member who died in the September 11th attacks.6 Another bad ending would be dying in a foul-play situation that would lead the police to want to do an autopsy (Alcor suggests its members file a no-autopsy-for-religious-reasons form with the government). A woman who has signed up for cryonics did a Reddit AMA, and when one of the questions was about how signing up had changed her life, she answered, “The biggest change I’ve noticed is that I’m more careful. I drive slower and more cautiously/attentively, I pay more attention to what’s going on around me.” Because she doesn’t want to die the really bad way.

Step 6) Cool off ASAP and get transferred to the cryonics facility

After you’re declared legally dead, the cryonics team will, ideally, immediately get going. The first thing they do is two-fold—they put you in an ice water bath to bring down your temperature and slow your metabolism (so any damage taking place as a result of cardiac arrest takes longer to happen), and they start getting your heart and lungs working again so that the body remains in stable condition. They do this by administering CPS (like CPR but with an S for support instead of an R for resuscitation, because they’re not trying to resuscitate you) using a mechanical heart-lung resuscitator called a thumper:7


Then they inject you with a number of different medicines to make sure you don’t get blood clots or start rotting.

Once that’s under control, they can do a more involved procedure that surgically accesses the major blood vessels in your thigh and hooks them up to this guy:8


That’s a heart-lung machine that takes care of circulation and oxygenation so they can stop the much cruder CPS. In addition to circulating your blood, the machine draws heat out of your body, cooling it to just above the freezing temperature of water, and replaces some of your blood with an organ preservation solution that supports life at super low temperatures (this is similar to how transplant surgeons keep organs alive when they have to transport them long distances).

If you have to be flown to the cryonics facility, they pack you in ice and put you on board what they hope is not your last ever flight.

Step 7) Get vitrified

Most people who know what cryonics is think it means getting frozen. It doesn’t. It means getting vitrified.

Glass is weird. It’s not a typical solid because as it cools from its liquid phase, it never crystallizes into an orderly structure. But, as I learned when a bunch of commenters yelled at me after I published this post, it’s not actually a liquid either, since it doesn’t flow. So, it’s neither a typical solid nor a liquid—it’s an “amorphous solid,” sometimes compared to a giant molecule. For our purposes, the key is that like a liquid, glass doesn’t crystallize—rather, as it cools the molecules just move slower and slower until they stop.

If you froze a human, all the liquid water in their body would eventually hit its freezing point and crystallize into a solid. That wouldn’t be good—first, water ice takes up about 9% more volume than water liquid, so it would expand and badly damage tissue, and second, the sharp ice crystals would slice through cell membranes and other tissue around it.

So to avoid that catastrophic liquid-to-solid state change, cryonics technicians do something cool—they perform surgery through the chest and hook the major arteries up to tubes which pump all the blood out of the body, replacing it with a “cryoprotectant solution,” otherwise known as medical grade anti-freeze. This does two important things: it replaces 60% of the water in the body’s cells, and it lowers the freezing point of what liquid is left. The result, when done perfectly, is that no freezing happens in the body. Instead, as they chill your body down and down over the next three hours, it hits -124ºC, a key point called the “glass transition temperature” when the body’s liquid stays amorphous but rises so high in viscosity that no molecule can budge. You’re officially an amorphous solid, like glass—i.e. you’re vitrified.

With no molecule movement, all chemical activity in your body comes to a halt. Biological time is stopped. You’re on pause.

Since I’m sure you’re feeling skeptical, it’s helpful to note that vitrifying biological parts is nothing new. We’ve been successfully vitrifying and then rewarming human embryos, sperm, skin, bone, and other body parts for a while now. More recently, scientists vitrified a rabbit kidney:9


Then they rewarmed it and put it back in the rabbit. And it still worked.

And just in February of 2016, there was a cryonics breakthrough when for the first time, scientists vitrified a rabbit’s brain and showed that once rewarmed, it was in near-perfect condition, “with the cell membranes, synapses, and intracellular structures intact … [It was] the first time a cryopreservation was provably able to protect everything associated with learning and memory.”10

Once you’re vitrified, you need to keep being chilled, little by little, until after about two weeks, you’re down to -196ºC. Why? Because that’s the point at which nitrogen becomes a liquid, and you’re about to take a long-term liquid nitrogen bath.

Step 8) Go into storage

Or as Alcor euphemistically calls it, “long-term care.” The new vitrified you now goes into what is essentially a large upright thermos that’s about 10 feet tall and 3.5 feet wide.11


You meet your new neighbors—three other vitrified people, each in their respective quadrant of the thermos, along with five people traveling super lean, with no body, whose heads are stacked in the middle column.12


Or, if you’re in a heads-only thermos, you’ll be one of 45 brains sharing the space (the brain is what’s being stored, but they keep the brains in their heads because it’s riskier to remove a brain than to just keep it in there and use the head as a carrying case).

Oh, and you’re upside-down. This is because liquid nitrogen boils off gradually from the top of the container. Normally, it’s no problem—the staff tops it off about once a week. But if, in some worst-case scenario, a container was forced to be left for a long time, the head would be the last thing to be affected—upside-down patients means it would take six months before the nitrogen boiled off so far that the head would be exposed.

And when it comes to blackouts, cryonics patients are totally safe—there’s no electricity involved in their storage.

And this is where you’ll hang out. Maybe for 10 years. Maybe for 150 years. Maybe for 1,200 years. But the time doesn’t matter to you. You’re on pause.

Now’s a good time for us to take a step back and look at the big picture. If Point A is “I’ve decided I want to sign up for cryonics,” and Point B is “Oh cool it’s the year 2482 and here I am doing stuff,” there are four major Ifs that need to all go the right way to take you from A to B:

1) If I legally die in a not really bad way and everything goes as planned with getting me into the thermos


2) If future humanity ever reaches a point where it has the technology to revive me to full health


3) If the cryonics company can manage to store me safely and uninterrupted until that point


4) If when that point comes, the outside world actually does take action to revive me

—then I’ll be there in 2482 doing stuff.

The eight steps you’ve taken so far that start with choosing a cryonics company and end with you in the thermos only accomplish the first If, with all the other Ifs still standing in between you and the next step in your cryonics journey—revival.

To understand how we can reach that step, we need to understand the deal with all four Ifs.

We’ll start by talking about Ifs 1-3, which need to be discussed together, because they’re interdependent and they work together. To illustrate why, let’s lay them out in the same visual:

Three Segments

The three segments of this line relate to Ifs 1, 2, and 3. But the visual is a little misleading at first, because even though all three segments lie on the same line, they’re all representing different concepts:

  • The blue segment (If 1) represents the quality of your initial preservation.
  • The yellow segment (If 2) represents the capabilities of medical technology as time moves forward.
  • The green segment (If 3) represents the amount of time still needed to bridge the gap between the blue and yellow segments before they can finally connect to each other.

The idea is that the better you were preserved, the farther out to the right the blue segment extends, and as technology gets better and better, the yellow segment extends itself farther and farther left toward the blue segment. The green segment gets smaller and smaller as this happens, until eventually the green segment is no more and the blue and yellow segments connect—i.e. medical technology has reached the point where it can revive you.

A lot of the key details about cryonics are centered here, so let’s talk about each of these segments in more depth:

The blue segment—the quality of your preservation (which relates to If 1)

Three Segments Blue

The length of the blue segment corresponds to the quality of preservation. Or, put most simply, the fewer roadblocks there are between your vitrified state in the thermos and a fully restored and healthy you, the longer the blue segment is—because if everything that happens leading up to you being put in the thermos goes as well as possible, it goes a longer way towards getting you to Point B and means the yellow segment has to do less work on its end to be able to revive you.

Three Segments comparison

The major factor that determines the length of the blue segment is how closely the atomic structure of your vitrified brain resembles the original atomic structure of your brain when it was living and healthy.

Let’s note that I said “brain,” not “body,” because what we mostly care about here is the brain. Cryonicists, like many of us, believe that who you are comes down to your brain. If, in the future, your identical current brain lived on top of a synthetic body and your exact memories and personality were fully intact, cryonicists would be satisfied that you “survived.” That’s why some don’t even bother vitrifying their body.

The second thing to note is that scientists believe that short-term memory is contained in brain activity—in the electricity going through your brain—while your long-term memory, your personality, your knowledge, and everything else that makes you “you” is contained in the brain’s structure—i.e. the particular arrangement of atoms that make up your brain.13

Any electrical activity in your brain before legal death will be lost during vitrification, so you’d be revived without the short-term memory of the end of your pre-vitrified life. But what vitrification can preserve is the structure of your brain, which conveniently, is all we care about.

This concept gives us a clearer understanding of the way cryonicists view death. To cryonicists, perfect health means the exact arrangement of atoms in your healthy brain being intact, and the process of dying means the deterioration of that arrangement due to phenomena like aging, injury, disease, and, eventually, effects caused by heart stoppage. Death, to them, means the point at which the original structure of your brain has become so disorganized that even the fanciest future science lab would have no way of figuring out what the original arrangement looked like—that’s the definition of info death.

The concept of info death makes sense when we compare the brain to a computer’s hard drive. Eliezer Yudkowsky explains how difficult it actually is to bring a computer hard drive to info death:14

If you want to securely erase a hard drive, it’s not as easy as writing it over with zeroes. Sure, an “erased” hard drive like this won’t boot up your computer if you just plug it in again. But if the drive falls into the hands of a specialist with a scanning tunneling microscope, they can tell the difference between “this was a 0, overwritten by a 0” and “this was a 1, overwritten by a 0”.

There are programs advertised to “securely erase” hard drives using many overwrites of 0s, 1s, and random data. But if you want to keep the secret on your hard drive secure against all possible future technologies that might ever be developed, then cover it with thermite and set it on fire. It’s the only way to be sure.

He applies the same logic to the human brain to suggest that cryonics patients should one day be revivable:

Pumping someone full of cryoprotectant and gradually lowering their temperature until they can be stored in liquid nitrogen is not a secure way to erase a person.

In other words, it’s reasonable to assume that the fanciest future neuroscientists will become so good at reading a damaged vitrified brain for clues as to its original structure that a typical combo of aging, disease, heart stoppage, and vitrification likely won’t be able to “stump” them. And to cryonicists, if future scientists can examine your vitrified brain and figure out what it’s supposed to look like, you’re not dead—by definition.

The length of the blue segment—preservation quality—is affected by three things:

1) How much damage happened before you legally died. How old were you when you died? How much had your brain deteriorated by that point? Did you suffer from a dementia-causing disease like Alzheimer’s and how much permanent damage did that disease do?3 Did the thing that killed you damage your brain (like brain cancer, or a head injury) or was your brain unharmed?

2) How much damage happened between when you legally died and when the cryonics team started working on you. In the ideal situation, your heart stops and before any changes happen in your brain, you’re stabilized and put on ice. Often, this isn’t how things go, and every unattended minute that passes after legal death has a big impact on the brain and shortens the length of the blue segment. But cryonicists believe that true info death doesn’t happen for many hours, or even days, after legal death occurs, and that there’s often hope in cryopreserving even people who lay “dead” for a while before being found.

3) How much damage happened during the vitrifying process. Vitrification itself—at least the way it is currently done—causes its own damage to the brain. Cryonics research focuses mostly on mitigating this factor, and it’s dramatically improved since the earliest days in the 1970s—the series of images at the bottom of this page shows the progress that has been made.

The yellow segment—the state of medical technological advancement as time moves forward (which relates to If 2)

Three Segments Yellow

As medical technology becomes more and more advanced, the yellow segment grows—but while the blue segment extends to the right as it grows, the yellow segment extends to the left. The key point happens when technology eventually gets so good that the yellow segment meets the blue segment and you become officially revivable.

Some questions:

Will If 2 happen? Will technology ever reach the point when it can revive you?

Assuming If 1 gets a check mark, cryonicists believe If 2 is likely to one day get a check mark too. Because there are only two ways to totally fail If 2:

1) For some reason, humans permanently stop working on medical technology advancements before you hit the If 2 key point.

2) Humans go extinct before hitting the If 2 key point.

Barring those two situations, If 2 should eventually cooperate. The theory is that with enough future technology, you’ll one day be revivable.

When will If 2 happen? How long until I’m revived?

This part depends on how substantial the technological challenge of cryonic revival turns out to be and how quickly technology ends up moving forward—but it also depends upon how well If 1 went. As we just discussed, the better If 1 goes, the sooner If 2 happens.

How will If 2 happen? What kind of future technology might be able to revive vitrified people?

Well, it depends on what we mean by revival. Cryonicists seem to have a Plan A and a Plan B.

Plan A: Restore the vitrified patient as a healthy human

Under Plan A, revival consists of restoring the structure of the vitrified brain to its original state—i.e. putting all the atoms where they belong. To do that, you need two things:

1) The info about where the atoms are supposed to go

2) A way to put the atoms where they’re supposed to go

The first thing is taken care of if today’s vitrifying procedures do their job, assuming future neuroscientists become really good at deciphering a brain’s original state from the information they can gather by examining the vitrified brain.

The second thing requires molecular nanotechnology. For a quick nanotech overview, I’ll steal part of a blue box from the AI post:

Nanotechnology Blue Box

Nanotechnology is our word for technology that deals with the manipulation of matter that’s between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or a millionth of a millimeter, and this 1-100 range encompasses viruses (100 nm across), DNA (10 nm wide), and things as small as large molecules like hemoglobin (5 nm) and medium molecules like glucose (1 nm). If/when we conquer nanotechnology, the next step will be the ability to manipulate individual atoms, which are only one order of magnitude smaller (~.1 nm).4

To understand the challenge of humans trying to manipulate matter in that range, let’s take the same thing on a larger scale. The International Space Station is 268 mi (431 km) above the Earth. If humans were giants so large their heads reached up to the ISS, they’d be about 250,000 times bigger than they are now. If you make the 1nm – 100nm nanotech range 250,000 times bigger, you get .25mm – 2.5cm. So nanotechnology is the equivalent of a human giant as tall as the ISS figuring out how to carefully build intricate objects using materials between the size of a grain of sand and an eyeball. To reach the next level—manipulating individual atoms—the giant would have to carefully position objects that are 1/40th of a millimeter—so small normal-size humans would need a microscope to see them.5

Nanotech was first discussed by Richard Feynman in a 1959 talk, when he explained: “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It would be, in principle, possible … for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down…. How? Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance.” It’s as simple as that. If you can figure out how to move individual molecules or atoms around, you can make literally anything. Nanotechnology so advanced that it allows us to engineer at an atomic level is called molecular nanotechnology (MNT).

Humans haven’t yet conquered MNT, and scientists debate how long it’ll take humanity to get there. But when we do, we might look back on today’s technology as terribly primitive, like the picture scientist Ralph Merkle paints: “Today’s manufacturing methods are very crude at the molecular level. Casting, grinding, milling and even lithography move atoms in great thundering statistical herds. It’s like trying to make things out of LEGO blocks with boxing gloves on your hands. Yes, you can push the LEGO blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can’t really snap them together the way you’d like.”

MNT will be a game-changer in an unimaginable number of arenas, one of which is in medicine. A brain synapse is just a particular configuration of atoms, so if we have the tools to move atoms around and put them where we want, then we can perfectly “repair” a damaged synapse. Cryonicists believe MNT is the key to the future revival and restoration of cryonics patients.

The first thought some people have when they think about revival is that the person would be revived as the old and dying person they were before being vitrified. But that’s not the plan. When we get to the point when we have technology so incredible that we can move atoms around well enough to revive someone, we should also have the technology to repair and rejuvenate them. For someone who was dying of cancer before going into the thermos, not only will their successful revival mean that cancer has likely been conquered long ago, but probably aging too.

Along the same lines, by that point we should also be able to either rejuvenate the patient’s vitrified body or simply make a new, perfectly-working body. Alcor’s Medical Response Director, Aaron Drake, explains: “We know we can regenerate a small organ, and grow a new heart. We know we can 3-dimensionally print cells and hearts. So at some point we would need to regenerate her entire body, or at least her organs, and put it all together. Then we’d need to transplant that brain into a new body.”15

Plan B: Upload the person’s brain info into a virtual world

Plan B shares Plan A’s first requirement—the info about where the atoms are supposed to go—but not its need for physical assembly. Instead, Plan B relies on a hypothetical future technology called “whole brain emulation,” where an entire brain structure can be uploaded to a computer with such perfect accuracy that everything about the person is intact and alive in a virtual world.

Sounds super fun, right?

This is an option if physical revival is too difficult, or if it’s so far in the future that the physical world has actually gone out of style entirely. If humans can somehow pull off whole brain emulation, you could be revived to wake up in a magical virtual world, fully conscious and no longer confined to the limits and vulnerabilities of biology and the physical world. Please.

While both Plan A and B require immense technological hurdles, cryonicists stress that both options are theoretically possible.

The green segment—the amount of time you need to stay safely in storage before technology is able to revive you (which relates to If 3)

Three Segments Green

The green segment’s job is simple: hold everything together until the yellow segment connects to the blue segment.

So what could mess up If 3? What could sabotage a vitrified person’s ability to remain bathed in liquid nitrogen as long as necessary?

A lot of things. Like:

The cryonics company screws up. A human-error-caused catastrophe—e.g. a rupture in a thermos tank lets in heat, and all the liquid nitrogen evaporates before the staff realizes what happened.

The cryonics company goes bankrupt and doesn’t have the means, the will, or the organization to create a plan that will save the patients. I mentioned that this happened a few times with some of the earlier companies. The major companies today claim to have secure backup plans in place in case of the worst case scenario, and this security blanket is the main purpose of Alcor’s sizable trust.

A natural disaster. An earthquake, tornado, or something else smashes the building holding the thermoses to oblivion. Neither major US cryonics company is in a location highly prone to natural disasters—Alcor actually located itself in Scottsdale, AZ because it is the place in the US least at risk of natural disasters. Even if a natural disaster were to strike, the patients might be fine—the thermoses are strong, they’re power-outage-proof with no electricity involved, and even if a thermos is ruptured, there’s the upside-down thing where patients’ heads will be the last body part affected.

A terrorist attack on a cryonics facility. There are a lot of people in the world—especially in the world of religion—who hate the concept of cryonics.

War. All bets are off in war.

The law prevents the cryonics company from doing its job. This one almost happened recently. In 2004, Arizona legislators tried to pass a bill that would have put Alcor under the regulation of the State Funeral Board. This, if passed, would have likely ended up shutting Alcor down. It turned into a nasty debate, centered largely around religious issues, with the religious voice disapproving of Alcor’s line of work—but ultimately, Alcor prevailed. That said, in order to do business legally, Alcor has to accept bodies in the guise of “anatomical donations for research purposes,” a practice protected by the constitutional right to donate one’s body for research into cryopreservation. The law-related variable seems pretty stable currently, but if someone has a long green segment and requires 800 years of storage before their revival becomes possible, who the hell knows what will happen—what is currently Scottsdale, AZ might not even be part of the US by that point.

The cryonics company comes under ownership with different values and they decide to give up on the patients. Or, more maliciously, a cryonics-hater makes a too-good-to-refuse offer to the owners of a cryonics company with the intention of shutting it down. All major cryonics companies claim that they’re run and always will be run by passionate cryonicists and this is not a possibility—but again, who knows.

The longer the green segment is and the longer it needs to hold out, the higher the chance of failing If 3. If patients can be revived 40 years from now, there’s a lot less that can go wrong than if revival doesn’t become possible for 2,500 years.

But the companies are doing their best to plan for the long run. On the question of how long until revival becomes possible, Alcor says, “Some think it will take centuries before patients can be revived, while others think the accelerating pace of technological change might so rapidly transform our world that decades would suffice. Alcor is planning for however long it might take.”16

As time moves forward and both vitrification and revival technology improve, both the blue and yellow segments will tend to move inward, invading the green segment from both sides. The big picture might be best illustrated like this:

Cryonics big picture

This is how the blue, green and yellow segments work in flow with each other. Cryonics companies often say cryonics will be a “last in, first out” thing, and this graph shows exactly why—

Cryonics big picture 2

The more time that passes before you need to be vitrified, the fancier the vitrification technology you’ll be treated with and the further along revival technology will be—and this smaller technology gap will mean a sooner revival date. And with less time to have to rely on a cryonics company to care for you, the less risk you’ll be taking.

It’s important to understand that the blue line on the graph applies to the average cryonics patient—someone who suffers from Alzheimers late in life will go into vitrification in worse shape than a typical person of their time, so their particular challenge will be greater than the blue line height that corresponds with the year of their death.

Of course, the simple, straight lines on the graph are portraying the general concept. The actual lines won’t be straight or predictable. One promising way this might be the case is that the accelerating rate of technological advancement6 might mean that the blue and yellow lines could improve at a faster rate over time and look like this:

Cryonics big picture Exponential

So that’s how the first three Ifs work. And that’s all great—but none of it matters if If 4 doesn’t pan out. Without If 4—i.e. “Will people actually revive me when the time comes?”—you’re still just a helpless, vitrified body, and if the external world doesn’t keep their side of the bargain once you become revivable, you’re out of luck—and you’ll never know it happened.

You’ll be a little like a farm animal. You might have rights in theory, but with no ability to defend your own rights, you’ll rely on other people to fight for those rights on your behalf.

As I’ve dug into this topic and talked to people about it, I’ve noticed that this concern seems to jump immediately to people’s minds as a reason cryonics is unlikely to work out.

They ask: “There will be enough problems on Earth to deal with—do you really think people are going to care about bringing dead people back to life?”

Cryonicists have answers to this question.

First, they point out that patients won’t be floating in tanks in a world that has forgotten them. Rather, as a patient, you’d likely have A) descendants or friends who will be highly aware of you and eager to see you reanimated, B) the larger cryonicist community, who will be as passionately interested in your fair treatment as PETA activists are in the fair treatment of animals, and C) the contractual obligation of your future care-takers—similar to how today you might be operated on by a surgeon who doesn’t know you, but who diligently cares for you anyway out of professional obligation.

Second, they argue that once the revival of cryonics patients becomes a reality, the public’s conception of what a cryonics patient is and what she deserves will dramatically shift:17

Long before it ever becomes possible to contemplate revival of today’s patients, reversible suspended animation will be perfected as a mainstream medical technology. From that point forward, the whole tradition of caring for people who cannot immediately be fixed will be strongly reinforced in culture and law. By the time it becomes possible to revive patients preserved with the oldest and crudest technologies, revival from states of suspended animation will be something that has been done thousands, if not millions, of times before. The moral and cultural imperative for revival when possible will be as basic and strong as the obligation to render first aid and emergency medical care today.

If a cryonics patient might seem to have the rights of a farm animal today, cryonicists expect that to become an outdated and primitive-seeming viewpoint down the road. They believe cryonics patients will be looked upon more like today’s coma patients.

That sounds great, but of course, we have no idea how the future will play out or what the standing will be for the field of cryonics and its suspended patients. It does seem plausible, at least, that cryonics patients will end up with more and more rights in the future, not fewer and fewer. If that’s what happens, If 4 shouldn’t be much of a problem.

And if all four Ifs go your way, you’ll finally be able to move onto the next step—the one that will really blow your mind when it happens.

Step 9) Be revived

This will be quite the experience.

First, whether it happens 30 years or 2,000 years after you were last conscious, it’ll feel the same to you—probably a bit like a short nap. When you sleep, you feel the passage of time—when you wake up after an eight-hour night’s sleep, it doesn’t feel like you just went to bed a second ago, it feels like it’s been eight hours. But being on pause in your liquid nitrogen thermos is different. You won’t experience the passage of time, so it’ll feel like you were just awake in your previous life (the only reason it won’t feel totally instantaneous is that you’ll have lost your short term memories). You’ll probably be super disoriented, and someone will have to explain to you that A) you’re in the future, and B) the cryonics worked, and you’re no longer a person about to die—you’re healthy and rejuvenated and all set to start living again.

How intense.

As a very not-heaven-believing person, I’ve always thought about how pleasantly shocked I would be if I died and then woke up in some delightful afterlife. I’d look around, slowly realize what was happening, and then I’d be like, “Wait…NO FUCKING WAY.” Then I’d promptly plant myself at the gates and watch other atheists come in for the fun of seeing them go through the same shock.

I imagine being revived from cryonics will be kind of like that. Maybe a few notches less shocking, since you presumably did the cryonics thing because you thought there was a chance it would work—but still a pretty big no fucking way moment.

After the initial shock, you’ll have to figure out what kind of world you’ve woken up into. Some possibilities:

It could suckYou could wake up in a far future world that’s a lot worse than the one you previously lived in and a world in which you know zero people. Even worse, you could wake up in some really scary situation—who knows what kind of creepy shit might be going on in the future.

It could be blah. You could wake up in a world that’s kind of meh. Like it’s not as future-y and cool as you thought it would be and you’re not immortal, just somewhat restored and still vulnerable, and you have to get a job and you don’t really have applicable skills for the times. Just kind of whatevs.

It could be incredibly rad. Probably the most likely outcome, you could wake up and it could be very, very rad. The future-y stuff might be cool and fun beyond your comprehension. You might have previously been 84 and aching everywhere and forgetful, and suddenly you have the body of a perfectly fit 20-year-old, or maybe something even better, like a super-charged synthetic body that doesn’t feel pain or exhaustion and can’t get sick. Your old, forgetful brain could be repaired and full of vitality you haven’t experienced in 50 years. And best, you might be surrounded by friends and family who were also cryopreserved and are unbelievably excited to see you. It could be rad.

It could be even crazier if you wake up in a virtual world after having had your vitrified brain data uploaded to a computer. You wouldn’t feel like you were in a computer—you’d feel every bit as real as you did when you were a human, except now everything is amazing and magical and you can spend almost all your time fulfilling my lifelong dream of sliding down rainbows like this care bear.18


Your friends and family could be there with you, also virtually uploaded but still fully themselves with all of their old memories—all of you now eternal and indestructible, with no need for the physical world or its resources.

Who knows what kind of world you’d wake up in. But a couple things lead me to believe it would be a pretty good situation:

  • A really terrible future world probably isn’t the type of world that would be concerned with protecting and reviving cryonics patients. In a world like that, you’d probably just never wake up.
  • Likewise, a future that can revive vitrified people is by definition pretty technologically amazing, so it’s hard to imagine waking up in a world that hasn’t solved all kinds of problems our current world suffers from.
  • The future tends to be better than the past. Humans have the tendency to predict dystopian futures, but at least so far, it’s been the other way around. Say what you want about the ills of today’s world, but it’s better to be a human today than it was 200 or 1,000 or 10,000 years ago.

But because we have no idea what revival will be like, we have this next step:

Step 10) Decide if you’re into it and want to stay

Barring some hilariously bad scenario where you’re revived into a world of eternal virtual torture with no ability to end it—which really makes no sense—cryonics is a risk-free venture. It has an undo button—just kill yourself and it’s as if it never happened. If you’re not into it, your journey ends here. Otherwise, move on to the next step.

Step 11) Enjoy shit

We’ve kind of reached the end of me guiding you. You’re now just living again like you were before—hopefully in a much better situation—and what you do at this point is really your business. Just go do your thing and enjoy being in the future.

Step 12) Die for real this time

At some point, you’ll be over it. No one ever will ever ever want to live forever, a fact I realized at the end of my Graham’s Number post. When the time comes, I assume the fancy future will have some painless way to bow out—something that will cause total info death, where your data is truly unrecoverable. At that point, you’ll have lived the complete life you want to live, not a life cut short by the limitations of the medical technology of the time you happen to be born in. That’s really the way things should be.


Now that we all know a lot more about cryonics, let’s bring back our sentence. This is where we were, and we were looking closely at the three words in the red:

Cryonics is the morbid process of freezing rich, dead people who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to bring them back to life, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

We can get rid of “rich,” because at least for younger people, cryonics can be paid for with a not-that-expensive life insurance plan.

We can get rid of “dead,” because cryonics doesn’t deal with dead people, it deals with people currently doomed to die given the technology they have current access to. For the same reason, we can also change the wording of “bring them back to life.”

And we can get rid of “freezing,” because cryonics doesn’t freeze people—it vitrifies them into an amorphous solid state.

While we’re here, let’s get rid of “morbid.” Is a vitrified human head floating in liquid nitrogen morbid? Yes. Is it more morbid than being eaten by worms and microbes underground or being burned to ashes? Definitely not. So not a fair word to use.

So that leaves us with a sentence more like this:

Cryonics is the process of pausing people in critical condition who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to save them, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

And then there’s the elephant in the room—this part of the sentence: …and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

I put that in there because when you’re examining something that involves A) a fringe community, B) the possible concept of immortality, and C) members paying large sums of money for services that they’re told might pan out 1,000 years from now—you have no choice but to put up your “Is this a Scientology-y thing?” antenna.

One way to let that antenna do its work is to read a bunch of stuff written by smart, credible people who think the whole thing is utter BS. If anything will disenchant you to the excitement of something as out there as cryonics, it’s experts telling you why it should be ignored.

So I did that. And as I read, I weighed what I read against the rebuttal from cryonicists, which I’d often find on Alcor’s highly comprehensive FAQ page. Other resources for the cryonicist viewpoint are the thorough FAQ of the Cryonics Institute’s ex-president, Ben Best, Alcor’s Science FAQ and Alcor’s Myths page.

The people who are super not into cryonics fall into a few general buckets:

Skeptic Type 1: The scientist with a valid argument about why cryonics might not be possible

The mainstream medical community is generally not on board with cryonics. No health insurance company will cover it, no government will subsidize it, no doctors will refer to it as a medical procedure.

Some skeptics make what seem to be valid points. Biochemist Ken Storey says, “We have many different organs and we know from research into preserving transplant organs that even if it were possible to successfully cryopreserve them, each would need to be cooled at a different rate and with a different mixture and concentration of cryoprotectants. Even if you only wanted to preserve the brain, it has dozens of different areas, which would need to be cryopreserved using different protocols.” Storey also points out just how tall an order it would be to “repair” someone damaged by vitrification, explaining that “a human cell has around 50,000 proteins and hundreds of millions of fat molecules that make up the membranes. Cryopreservation disrupts all of them.” (Alcor calls this statement patently false.7)

Others point to the towering challenge of either repairing a human brain or scanning one in order to upload it. Brazilian scientist Miguel Nicolelis emphasizes that the task of scanning a human brain would require, with today’s technology, “a million electron microscopes running in parallel for ten years.” Michael Hendricks, who studies the brains of roundworms, believes the challenge of reviving the qualities that make someone who they are is far too complex to achieve, explaining that “while it might be theoretically possible to preserve these features in dead tissue, that certainly is not happening now. The technology to do so, let alone the ability to read this information back out of such a specimen, does not yet exist even in principle.”

Cryonicist response: Totes

Cryonicists don’t really disagree with these people (Storey’s quote notwithstanding). They readily admit that the challenges of reviving someone from cryopreservation are insurmountable using today’s technology. They simply point out that A) there’s no scientific evidence that cryonics can’t work, B) we shouldn’t underestimate what future technology will be able to do (imagine how mind-blowing CRISPRwould be to someone in the year 1700 and think about what the equivalent would be for us), and C) there have been some promising developments—like the recent well-preserved vitrified rabbit brainnews—that suggest there’s reason for optimism.

I’m yet to hear a cryonicist say, “Cryonics will work.” They just don’t feel that this is a case where a lack of proof amounts to a lack of credibility. Alcor’s Science FAQ addresses this: “The burden of proof lies with those who make a claim that is inconsistent with existing well-established scientific theory. Cryonics is not inconsistent with well-established scientific theory … At no point does cryonics require that existing physical law be altered in any way.”

Cryonicists also don’t waste an opportunity to point out these quotes:

“There is no hope for the fanciful idea of reaching the Moon because of insurmountable barriers to escaping the Earth’s gravity.” — Dr. Forest Ray Moulton, University of Chicago astronomer, 1932.

“All this writing about space travel is utter bilge.” — Sir Richard Woolley, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1956

“To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon…. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances.” — Dr. Lee De Forest, famous engineer, 1957


Skeptic Type 2: The scientist who argues that cryonics won’t work even though they know less about cryonics than you do right now having read this post

This is a surprisingly large category of cryonics skeptics. It’s amazing, for example, how many people from the mainstream medical world argue that cryonics can’t work because when water freezes, it causes irreparable damage to human tissue.

Cryonicist response: Agreed—that’s why we don’t freeze people. Please read about what cryonics is before saying more words out of your mouth.

Among the cryonics skeptics who literally don’t get what modern cryonics consists of is celebrity physicist Michio Kaku, someone I normally like, but who in this clip is taken to town by Alcor’s CEO for having no idea what he’s talking about.

Part of the reason most scientists don’t get cryonics has to do with its cross-disciplinary nature. Alcor explains:

Most experts in any single field will say that they know of no evidence that cryonics can work. That’s because cryonics is an interdisciplinary field based on three facts from diverse unrelated sciences. Without all these facts, cryonics seems ridiculous. Unfortunately that makes the number of experts qualified to comment on cryonics very small. For example, very few scientists even know what vitrification is. Fewer still know that vitrification can preserve cell structure of whole organs or whole brains. Even though this use of vitrification has been published, it is so uncommon outside of cryonics that only a handful of cryobiologists know it is possible.


Skeptic Type 3: The cryogenicist who doesn’t want the other cool kids to think he’s friends with cryonics, the weird outsider.

There’s an amusing little one-way rivalry going on between cryogenicists (who, remember, deal with the science of the effects of cold temperatures in general) and cryonicists. Cryogenicists tend to view cryonics like an astronomer would view astrology—or at least, that’s what they say publicly out of caution. They seem to sometimes admit that there could be sound science behind cryonics, but they also know that cryonics lacks credibility with the wider science community and they don’t want to get roped into that reputation problem by association (they also have very little sense of humor about people confusing the words cryogenics and cryonics).

Cryonicist response: Whatevs.


Skeptic Type 4: The person who believes that even if you can revive a vitrified person, it won’t really be them.

This relates to a philosophical quandary I explored in the post What Makes You You? Are “you” your body? Your brain? The data in your brain? Something less tangible like a soul? This all becomes highly relevant when we’re thinking about cryonics. It’s hard to read about cryonic revival, and especially the prospect of “waking up” in a virtual world you’ve been uploaded into, without asking, “But wait…will that still be me?”

This is a common objection to cryonics, but few people will argue with conviction that they know the answer to this question one way or the other.

Cryonicist response: Yeah, we’re not sure about that either. Fingers crossed though.

Most cryonicists have a hunch that you can survive cryopreservation intact (cryonicist Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that “successful cryonics preserves anything about you that is preserved by going to sleep at night and waking up the next morning”) but they also admit that this is yet another variable they’re not sure about. You might even want to consider this a fifth “If” to add onto our list: If what seems to be a revived me is actually me…


Skeptic Type 5: The person who, regardless of whether cryonics can work or not, thinks it’s a bad thing

There are lots of these people. A handful of examples:

Argument: Cryonics is icky.

Typical cryonicist response: Yup, but less icky than decaying underground.

Argument: Cryonics is creepy and unnatural.

Typical cryonicist response: People said the same thing about the first organ transplants.

Argument: Cryonics is trying to play God and cheat death.

Typical cryonicist response: Is resuscitating someone whose heart has stopped playing God and cheating death? How about chemotherapy?

Argument: Cryonics is a scam.

Typical cryonicist response: The major cryonics companies are all nonprofits, the employees are paid modestly and the board members running the company (who are all signed up for cryonics themselves) aren’t paid at all. So who exactly is benefiting from this scam?

Argument: “If you have enough money [for cryonics], then you have enough money to help somebody in need today.” — Bioethicist Kenneth Goodman19

Actual cryonicist response: “If you have enough money for health insurance (which costs a lot more than cryonics), then you have enough money to help somebody else in need today. In fact, if you have enough money for any discretionary expenditure (travel, sports, movies, beer), then you have enough money to help somebody in need today. Of all the ways people choose to spend substantial sums of money over a lifetime, singling out the health care choice of cryonics as selfish is completely arbitrary.”20

Argument: “Money invested to preserve human life in the deep freeze is money wasted, the sums involved being large enough to fulfill a punitive function as a self-imposed fine for gullibility and vanity.” — Biologist Jean Medawar21

Actual cryonicist response: “Nobody would ever imagine calling the first recipients of bone marrow transplants or artificial hearts “gullible and vain”. And what of dying children who are cryopreserved? Cryonics is an experiment, and people who choose this experiment are worthy of the same respect as other participants in high risk medical endeavors.”22

Argument: Cryonics will cause an overpopulation disaster.

Actual cryonicist response: This is a common one I’ve heard in my discussions. Here’s what Alcor says: “What about antibiotics, vaccinations, statin drugs and the population pressures they bring? It’s silly to single out something as small and speculative as cryonics as a population issue. Life spans will continue increasing in developed parts of the world, cryonics or not, as they have done for the past century. Historically, as societies become more wealthy and long-lived, population takes care of itself. Couples have fewer children at later ages. This is happening in the world right now. The worst population problems are where people are poor and life spans short, not long.”23

Argument: But Ted Williams.

Let me explain. There are a handful of famous people signed up for cryonics, like Ray Kurzweil, nanotech pioneer Eric Drexler, and celebrities like Larry King, Britney Spears, Simon Cowell, and Paris Hilton.24 But there are very few big names among the 300 or so who are already vitrified. One that is is baseball legend Ted Williams.

Williams is the first thing that comes to mind when a lot of people think about cryonics, an unfortunate fact that cryonicists wish would go away, because his story is mired in scandal (two of Williams’ children said cryonics is what he wanted while the other claimed he wanted to be cremated and the son was just cryopreserving him so he could later profit off of his DNA samples). The ugly story ended up, fairly or unfairly, as a stain on the cryonics industry in many people’s heads, partially because in the midst of it, Sports Illustrated published an article about the scandal with quotes from an ex-Alcor employeeaccusing Alcor of mismanaging the Williams vitrification, among other things.

Typical cryonicist response: Unfairly. It’s a stain unfairly. The accusations weren’t based in reality, and the employee recently admitted in court that what he said may not have been true.

Argument: Life is long enough. People aren’t supposed to live longer than we do now. Just enjoy what you’ve got.

Typical cryonicist response: Thank you for your opinion. I disagree.

So how does my Scientology antenna feel after reading about 50 skeptic opinions?

Well, the skeptics definitely helped me appreciate the magnitude of the challenge at hand with cryonics. Science has a long way to go before cryonics can truly function as a pause button instead of a stop button—and we may never get there.

But it left me feeling every bit as confident that cryonics is a worthy pursuit and possibly a total game-changer. The fact that cryonic revival seems plausible, coupled with the fact that through most of history, the people of the time couldn’t have even imagined the magic that future technology would make real, makes me feel like the safer bet is on cryonics eventually working. If something important isn’t impossible, the future will probably figure out a way to make it happen, with enough time.

There’s also the “why the fuck not?” argument cryonicists make that’s very hard for skeptics to thwart.

Pro-cryonics scientist Ralph Merkle says it well:25

The correct scientific answer to the question “Does cryonics work?” is: “The clinical trials are in progress. Come back in a century and we’ll give you an answer based on the outcome.” The relevant question for those of us who don’t expect to live that long is: “Would I rather be in the control group, or the experimental group?” We are forced by circumstances to answer that question without the benefit of knowing the results of the clinical trials.

The only way to shoot down a response that says, “We don’t know but we might as well try” is to say, “There is definitely no point in trying because it’s impossible.” And very few credible scientists would claim to have that conviction about things as mysterious as the workings of the brain and the possibilities of the far future.

The other thing that struck me as I learned about cryonics is that cryonicists aren’t usually “salesy” at all when they talk about cryonics. The impression I got from my research is that cryonicists tend to be well-educated, rational, realistic, and humble about what they know and don’t know. They readily admit the problems and shortcomings of the field8 and they’re careful to use measured, responsible language so as not to distort the nuances of the truth.9 And despite a general lack of support from the mainstream medical community, plenty of reputable scientists have become fervent cryonicists.

So, for now, cryonics has satisfied my Scientology antenna.

Which shortens our sentence to this:

Cryonics is the process of pausing people in critical condition who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to save them.

The final wording in the sentence that I’d like to challenge is:

Cryonics is the process of pausing people in critical condition who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to save them.

This is the part of the sentence that carries a twinge of eye-rolling contempt—something people often feel when they hear about someone with a desire to conquer mortality. Aside from the aversion we have to the prospect of a human body floating in a freezing tank, many of us feel a distaste towards the motivation behind cryonics. It seems greedy to want more than your one standard life.

I’m not one to typically feel contempt at something like this, but early in my research, even I found myself doing a little head shake when I read about billionaire Peter Thiel signing up for cryonics a while back.

But this post has forced me to take a big step back—back to where I can see death not as a moment but as a process, back to where I can see the human lifespan as a product of our times, not our biology, and back to where I see the concept of human health spread out along the spans of time and where I can imagine how future humans will see our current times of helplessness in the face of biological deterioration.

From way out here, it hits you that we’re living in a phase—a sad little window that an intelligent species inevitably passes through, when they’re advanced enough to understand their own mortality, but still too primitive to save themselves from it. We grapple with this by treating death like a tyrannical overlord we wouldn’t dare try to challenge, not even in our own private thoughts. We’ve been universally defeated and dominated by this overlord for as long as we’ve existed, and all we know how to do is bow down to it in full resignation of its power over us.10

Future humans who have one day overthrown the overlord will look at the phase we’re in and our resulting psychological condition with such clarity—they’ll be sad for us the way we’re sad for brainwashed members of an ancient cult who commit mass suicide because the master has instructed it.

Our will isn’t broken when it comes to resisting the overlord—that’s why we see it as honorable to fight cancer till the final minute, heroic to risk your own life for a good cause and make it out alive, and a terrible mistake to resign to the overlord prematurely and commit suicide.

But when it comes to defeating the overlord, our will has been squashed by a history that tells us that the overlord is indestructible.

And this explains the divide between how cryonicists feel about cryonics and how the rest of us view it. The divide is for two reasons:

1) Cryonicists view death as a process and consider many people who are declared dead today to still be alive—and they view cryonics as an attempted transfer of a living patient to a future hospital that can save his life. In other words, they view cryonics merely as an attempt to resist the overlord, no different than the way we view someone being transferred to a hospital in a different location which has better treatment options for their condition. Most of us, by contrast, view death as a singular moment, so we see cryonics as an attempt to bring a dead person back to life—i.e. we see cryonics as an attempt to defeat the overlord. When cryonicists see us cheer on a billionaire who fights cancer and shake our heads at one who signs up for cryonics, when they see us praying for someone in a coma and rolling our eyes at someone being vitrified—they see us being highly irrational.

2) Cryonicists view death not as an all-powerful overlord but as a puzzle to be solved. They see humans as an arrangement of atoms and see no reason that arrangement should have to inevitably deteriorate if our scientists can just get better at working with atoms. So for them, trying to defeat death altogether is an obvious, rational mission to undertake. But most of us view death as a fundamental fact of the universe—a mysterious and terrifying shadow that hovers over all living things and that only a naive fool would try to escape from—so instead of cheering on the people trying to solve the puzzle of death, we scoff at them and laugh at them, as if they’re too immature to come to peace with the inevitable.

Looking at this through a zoomed out lens was a big Whoa Moment epiphany for me. Suddenly, I saw the cryonicists’ of the world in the same light as those rare ancient people trying to understand how earthquakes work so they could be best prepared for the next one, and I realized that when I shook my head at Peter Thiel, I was being like one of the hordes of ancient people who worshipped the gods that had punished us with that earthquake and who wanted to burn those rare scientists at the stake for their blasphemous thinking.

I started this post thinking I’d simply write a “mini post” about this little community of cryonicists and what they were trying to do and ended it staring at another example of today’s self-proclaimed science-minded rationalists being tomorrow’s idol-worshippers.

I also saw my conception of end-of-life morality flip itself on its head. At the beginning of my research, my question was, “Is cryonics an okay thing to do?” By the end, the question was , “Is it okay to not sign up a dying child for cryonics, or will future people view that the way we see a parent refusing to allow life-saving medical treatment to their child for religious reasons?”

Cryonics has quickly come to seem not only like a good thing to try, but like the right thing to do.

That’s certainly how Alcor sees it. They say:

The moral argument for cryonics is that it’s wrong to discontinue care of an unconscious person when they can still be rescued. This is why people who fall unconscious are taken to hospital by ambulance, why they will be maintained for weeks in intensive care if necessary, and why they will still be cared for even if they don’t fully awaken after that. It is a moral imperative to care for unconscious people as long as there remains reasonable hope for recovery.

And once you’re looking through that lens, everything we consider normal starts to look crazy.

When Kim Suozzi found out she was dying of cancer at age 23, she signed up to be cryopreserved. She viewed it like trying a new experimental drug that might have a chance to save her when nothing else could—a no-brainer. But her father fiercely resisted the decision,11 Reddit users scorned her for it, and the story was unusual enough to warrant a feature article in the New York Times.

It’s as if Kim was part of a group of the world’s cancer-stricken 23-year-olds as they all walked toward a cliff to fall into the jaws of the overlord, and Kim saw a rope hanging from a higher cliff across the chasm and decided to jump for it because maybe, just maybe, it could pull her to safety. And the Timesfound that to be so bizarre, and so out there, that they wrote a piece on it. Huh?

From far away, it looks a lot like we’re all on a plane that’s going down, with our only shot at survival being to take a chance with an experimental parachute—and we’re all just staying in our seats.


I’ve decided to take a parachute and jump. I have an appointment set up for early April with a life insurance agent and Alcor member to get set up with a plan. I can boil the decision down to three reasons:

1) I love life. Readers have picked up on my mild obsession with death, which might have something to do with the 55 times I’ve talked about it on this blog. But when they bring it up with me, they refer to it as my fear of death. Which isn’t quite how I feel. It’s more that I really like life. I like doing things and thinking things and I like my family and friends and want to keep hanging out with them if I can. I also really want to see what happens. I want to be there when we figure out the Fermi Paradox and when we discover what dark matter is and when we terraform Mars and when AI takes all our jobs and then extincts all of us. I want to see what the 23rd century is like and see how cool the phones are by then. Being alive is a lot more interesting than being dead. And since I have all of eternity to be dead, it seems logical to stay not dead for at least a while when I have the chance.

2) This chart.


3) Hope. I’ve always been jealous of religious people, because on their deathbed, instead of thinking, “Shit,” they’re thinking, “Okay here’s the big moment—am I about to blink and wake up in heaven??” Much more fun. And much more exciting. Whether cryonics pans out or not, as I age, at least a little part of me can now be thinking, “I wonder what’s gonna happen when I die?” Atheists aren’t supposed to get to think that. Humans don’t need a huge amount of hope to feel hopeful—they just need something to cling onto. Just enough to be able to have the “So you’re sayin there’s a chance!” feeling.

Some of you will resonate with my decision—others will think it makes me silly, gullible, or selfish.

Either way, you should think about this and the fact that you currently have a plan, whether you realize it or not. Likely, that plan is to resign to death. To walk off the cliff instead of jumping for the lifeline. To stay planted in your seat as the plane goes down.

That’s not necessarily the wrong decision, depending on who you are, what you believe, and what you value. But if that’s your plan, it should be because you like that plan more than the alternative—not because you haven’t thought about it and are just doing what everyone else is doing. This is a matter of your one existence, and you have to take the fate of that existence into your own, independent-thinking hands.

And if you decide that you probably would rather grab a parachute than stay in your seat, try not to fall victim to a common trap:


That’s a real term used in the cryonics world to describe the phenomenon of people—especially young people—saying, “Yeah duh I’m obviously doing cryonics when I die” and then not actually going through the actions to sign up and start paying money. It’s natural—what could possibly be easier to procrastinate on? That item on your list—”sign up for cryonics”—tends to never find itself at the top of the to-do list. But no matter what age you are, unexpected things can happen, and if you never got around to signing up when they do, you’re out of luck. If you take a big step back, procrastinating on this is really shortsighted. Just do what I did—book appointments so you’ll actually do it.

I hope you’ll do it the same way I’d hope you’d take a shot with an experimental drug if you were sick and it were the one chance you had. Because it’s worth a try. Because it just might work. Because why the fuck not. And because Dylan Thomas said it best:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


If you want to learn more—the Alcor FAQ and Ben Best’s FAQ are great ways to start. Both the Alcorand Cryonics Institute websites are full of information, and if you want to go a whole level deeper, dig into Alcor’s library (where you can also find cryopreservation case reports) or this collection of cryonics-related journal articles. Many more sources are listed below.

If you want to help or get involved—you can donate to Alcor or CI or volunteer to help at Alcor. Alcor lists some specific types of people they need help from at the bottom of this page.


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If you liked this post, you’ll want to read these:

What Makes You You? – A post that uses mind-bending thought experiments to dig into the weirdest, hardest cryonics question

The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence – Something that might be way better at helping us conquer mortality than cryonics (or the opposite and it’ll extinct us)

How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars – Like cryonics except instead of trying to extend a person’s life, it’s trying to extend the species’ life

Or, for something less heavy, this makes me feel not that scared about cryonics causing overpopulation.



Alcor’s website is a great resource, especially their main FAQ, their science FAQ, and their library. They also have a substantial YouTube page. I got the idea for the plane going down / experimental parachutes metaphor from the video testimonial of Alcor member Andrew Popper – thanks Andrew.

The other thing from this post that was inspired from outside work is the concept of death as an overlord, which is loosely based on the storyline of Nick Bostrom’s The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where the role of death is played by a dragon. If you liked that part of the post, definitely read the fable.

The Cryonics Institute also has a lot of good information, especially the FAQ of Ben Best, their ex-president.

I feel bad having focused only on Alcor and CI in this post and ignoring the smaller but spirited KrioRusoutside of Moscow. Here’s a good article from FT Magazine (by Courtney Weaver) that focuses on them.

Here’s a collection of cryonics-related journal articles. Here’s another.

Here are a handful of cryopreservation case reports.

Scientist and cryonicist Ralph Merkle nicely articulates a bunch of the stuff I talked about on his website. A lot of people compare the “why the fuck not?” argument for cryonics with Pascal’s Wager. Merkle doesn’t think it’s a great comparison – here’s why.

This is a pretty riveting This American Life episode about cryonics. It focuses on the early days of the movement in the ’60s and ’70s, honing in on a notorious cryonics disaster. And here’s a Stuff You Should Know about cryonics.

letter by 60 scientists arguing that cryonics should be taken seriously in the science world.

Eliezer Yudkowsky finds a way of popping his head into like a third of the posts I write as I research. He has a bunch of interesting stuff to say about cryonics. Here’s one thing. Here’s another.

Two great recent articles about cryonics: One from Motherboard (by Brian Merchant) about a dying two-year-old girl whose parents made her the world’s youngest cryonics patient. And one from the NY Times (by Amy Harmon) that I referenced at the end of the post about a 23-year-old who signed up with Alcor before she died of a brain tumor.

An interesting Reddit AMA with a cryonics member.

An article from Newsweek (by Anthony Cuthbertson) about the Feb 2016 rabbit-brain-vitrifying breakthrough.

I only read excerpts of this, but here’s Robert Ettinger’s famous book that launched the cryonics movement in the early ’60s.

An interesting New York Magazine article (by Kerry Howley) that explores the phenomenon of family conflict over cryonics.

An Atlantic article (by Rose Eveleth) about the cryonics process. Alcor has a good page on the procedure too. So does CI.

Meet Michael Hendricks, a smart scientist who thinks cryonics is horse shitHere’s another skepticAnd another. Alcor refutes skeptics with this page and this page, and it admits problems with cryonics here.

Alcor’s pricing. And CI’s.

A video nicely articulating the case for cryonics by Alcor’s CEO Max More.


Pelley: The 12-year-old prodigy whose “first language” is Mozart


The 12-year-old prodigy whose “first language” is Mozart

Alma Deutscher was playing piano and violin by the time she was 3 years old and wrote her first opera at 10. For her, making music seems as natural as breathing

We cannot explain what you are about to hear. Science doesn’t know enough about the brain to make sense of Alma. Alma Deutscher is an accomplished British composer in the classical style. She is a virtuoso on the piano and the violin. And she is 12 years old. She’s different from other prodigies we have known, because at the age of ten she wrote an opera, which demands comprehensive mastery; not just how to play the piano, but, what is the range of the oboe? What can a cellist play? We don’t know how she understands it all. It seems that Alma was born that way.


Correspondent Scott Pelley and Alma Deutscher


Scott Pelley: What is your earliest musical memory?

Alma Deutscher: I remember that when I was three, and I listened to this really beautiful lullaby by Richard Strauss, and that was when I really first realized how much I loved music. And I asked my parents, “But how can music be so beautiful?”

Those notes of Richard Strauss ignited a universe. At three, Alma was playing piano and violin.

Scott Pelley: When did the composing begin?

Alma Deutscher: When I was four, I just had these melodies and ideas in my head, and I would play them down at the piano. And sometimes my parents would think that I was just remembering music that I’d already heard before. But I said, “No, no, these are my melodies, that I composed.”

“For me, it’s strange to walk around and not to have melodies popping into my head.”

This past summer, in Austria, we watched Alma prepare her violin concerto and the premiere of her piano concerto. Joji Hattori conducts the vienna chamber orchestra.

That night, the soloist was the composer herself. Remember, she wrote all the notes for all the instruments.

We could see, Alma was living a story.

A story of loss.

A story of redemption.

Scales of emotion beyond a child.

And yet her vision was almost like wisdom.

Scott Pelley: Do you have any idea where this comes from?

Alma Deutscher: I don’t really know, but it’s really very normal to me to go around — walk around and having melodies popping into my head. It’s the most normal thing in the world. For me, it’s strange to walk around and not to have melodies popping into my head. So if I was interviewing you, I would say, “Well, tell me Scott.  How does it feel not having melodies popping into your head?

Scott Pelley: It’s very quiet in my head.  I must say.


Alma Deutscher


But, it appears, it’s never quiet in hers. When she has nothing to do, the music flows from its mysterious source as fluently as breath.

Her parents, Guy and Janie, are professors. She teaches old English literature, Guy is a noted linguist. Both of them are amateur musicians.

Scott Pelley: Do you feel that there’s anything about Alma’s gift that you don’t understand?

Guy Deutscher: We don’t understand creativity. Does anyone? I mean I think that’s the crux of the mystery. Where does it come from? This melody popping into your head. It really is a volcano of imagination. It’s almost unstoppable.

It was Guy who taught her how to read music.

Guy Deutscher: I thought I was an amazing teacher because you know, I hardly had to–

Scott Pelley: You thought it was you!

Guy Deutscher: I thought it was me. I hardly had to say something and you know her piano teacher once said ‘it’s a bit difficult with Alma It’s difficult to teach her because one always has the sense she’d been there before.’

Janie Deutscher: She wouldn’t be able to imagine life without dreams and stories and music. That’s as unimaginable to her as it is strange for other people to think about a girl with melodies in her head.

Alma Deutscher: I love getting the melodies. It’s not at all difficult to me. I get them all the time. But then actually sitting down and developing the melodies and that’s the really difficult part, having to tell a real story with music.

“I think I would prefer to be the first Alma than to be the second Mozart.”

The story Alma tells in her opera, is Cinderella, but it’s not the Cinderella you know.

It seemed demeaning to Alma that Cinderella was attractive because her feet were small so she cast Cinderella as a composer and the prince, as a poet.

Alma Deutscher: Cinderella finds a poem that was composed by the prince and she loves it and she’s inspired to put music to it. And in the ball she sings it to the prince.


Alma Deutscher


Alma Deutscher: I think that it makes much more sense if he falls in love with her because she composed this amazing melody to his poem, because he thinks that she’s his soul mate, because he understands her.

Scott Pelley: Well, people can fall in love with composers.

Alma Deutscher: Exactly.

Scott Pelley: I think this may be one of those times.

They fell in love with Cinderella in its first production in Vienna.

Scott Pelley: There is another composer who had an opera premiere in Vienna at the age of 11. Mozart. People compare you to Mozart. What do you think of that?

Alma Deutscher:  I know that they mean it to be very nice to compare me to Mozart.

Scott Pelley: It could be worse.

Alma Deutscher: Of course, I love Mozart and I would have loved him to be my teacher. But I think I would prefer to be the first Alma than to be the second Mozart.

In Israel, Mozart joined Alma on stage, she played his piano concerto with a cadenza. In a cadenza, the orchestra stops and the soloist breaks away in music of her own making.

Alma Deutscher: It’s something that I composed because you see it’s a very early concerto of Mozart and the cadenza was very simple. It didn’t go to any different keys.

Alma Deutscher: And I composed quite a long one going to lots and lots of different keys doing lots of things in Mozart’s motifs.

Scott Pelley: So you improved the cadenza of Mozart?

Alma Deutscher: Well, yes.


Robert Gjerdingen is a professor of music at Northwestern in Chicago. He has been a consultant to Alma’s education.

Robert Gjerdingen: It’s kind of a comet that goes by and everybody looks up and just goes, “Wow.” I sent her some assignments when she was six, seven, where I expected her to crash and burn, because they were very difficult. It came back, it was like listening to a mid-18th century composer. She was a native speaker.

Scott Pelley: A native speaker?

Robert Gjerdingen: It’s her first language she speaks the Mozart-style. She speaks the style of Mendelssohn.

Scott Pelley: And the names that you just mentioned are the ones that live for centuries.

Robert Gjerdingen: Yes. She’s batting in the big leagues. And if you win the pennant, there’s immortality.

The route to immortality leads through California. In December, the Opera San Jose Orchestra will stage Cinderella in Alma’s American debut. She’ll be the belle of the ball, on the piano, organ and violin.


Alma Deutscher


Alma Deutscher: The piano music teachers say, “Well you must choose the piano.” And the violin music teachers say, “Oh you must choose the violin.” But anyway, that’s better than the piano teacher saying, “You must choose the violin.”

Scott Pelley: That would be a bad sign.

Alma Deutscher: That would be a bad sign, yes.

“I know that that life is not always beautiful. That there’s also ugliness in the world. That’s why I, I’ve learned, that I want to write beautiful music because I want to make the world a better place.”

Fortunately she doesn’t have to choose. This is her composition, Violin Concerto Number One.

Alma Deutscher: It’s extremely jolly and very happy and jocular that movement. I want to make the people who listen to it laugh and be happy. The first movement of the violin concerto is quite the opposite. It’s very dark and dramatic.

Scott Pelley: What does a girl your age know about dark and dramatic?

Alma Deutscher: Well yes, that’s an interesting question because you know what?  I’m a very happy person so I have lots of imaginary composers. And one of them is called Antonin Yellowsink.

Antonin Yellowsink, Alma’s imaginary composing friend, is an insight into the music of her mind. Alma told us that she made up a country where imaginary composers write, each in his own style of emotion.

Scott Pelley: So how many composers do you have in your head?

Alma Deutscher: I have lots of composers. And sometimes when I’m stuck with something, when I’m composing, I go to them and ask them for advice. And quite often, they come up with very interesting things.

Even the real world is magical. The Deutscher’s moved to the English countryside to be near a famous school of music. Alma is privately tutored and homeschooled alongside her sister Helen who also knows her way around the piano and the tree house.

Scott Pelley: I usually don’t ask people your age this question, but, what have you learned about life?

Alma Deutscher: Well, I know that that life is not always beautiful. That there’s also ugliness in the world. That’s why I, I’ve learned, that I want to write beautiful music because I want to make the world a better place.

We cannot know how Alma Deutscher channels her music like a portal in time. But in a world, too often ugly, and too often overburdened with explanation, it’s nice to take a moment and wonder.

Produced by Robert G. Anderson and Aaron Weisz

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, “60 Minutes”

Skenazy and Haidt: The Fragile Generation


One day last year, a citizen on a prairie path in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst came upon a teen boy chopping wood. Not a body. Just some already-fallen branches. Nonetheless, the onlooker called the cops.

Officers interrogated the boy, who said he was trying to build a fort for himself and his friends. A local news site reports the police then “took the tools for safekeeping to be returned to the boy’s parents.”

Elsewhere in America, preschoolers at the Learning Collaborative in Charlotte, North Carolina, were thrilled to receive a set of gently used playground equipment. But the kids soon found out they would not be allowed to use it, because it was resting on grass, not wood chips. “It’s a safety issue,” explained a day care spokeswoman. Playing on grass is against local regulations.

And then there was the query that ran in Parents magazine a few years back: “Your child’s old enough to stay home briefly, and often does. But is it okay to leave her and her playmate home while you dash to the dry cleaner?” Absolutely not, the magazine averred: “Take the kids with you, or save your errand for another time.” After all, “you want to make sure that no one’s feelings get too hurt if there’s a squabble.”

The principle here is simple: This generation of kids must be protected like none other. They can’t use tools, they can’t play on grass, and they certainly can’t be expected to work through a spat with a friend.

And this, it could be argued, is why we have “safe spaces” on college campuses and millennials missing adult milestones today. We told a generation of kids that they can never be too safe—and they believed us.

Safety First

We’ve had the best of intentions, of course. But efforts to protect our children may be backfiring. When we raise kids unaccustomed to facing anything on their own, including risk, failure, and hurt feelings, our society and even our economy are threatened. Yet modern child-rearing practices and laws seem all but designed to cultivate this lack of preparedness. There’s the fear that everything children see, do, eat, hear, and lick could hurt them. And there’s a newer belief that has been spreading through higher education that words and ideas themselves can be traumatizing.

How did we come to think a generation of kids can’t handle the basic challenges of growing up?

Beginning in the 1980s, American childhood changed. For a variety of reasons—including shifts in parenting norms, new academic expectations, increased regulation, technological advances, and especially a heightened fear of abduction (missing kids on milk cartons made it feel as if this exceedingly rare crime was rampant)—children largely lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore, and resolve conflicts on their own. This has left them more fragile, more easily offended, and more reliant on others. They have been taught to seek authority figures to solve their problems and shield them from discomfort, a condition sociologists call “moral dependency.”

This poses a threat to the kind of open-mindedness and flexibility young people need to thrive at college and beyond. If they arrive at school or start careers unaccustomed to frustration and misunderstandings, we can expect them to be hypersensitive. And if they don’t develop the resources to work through obstacles, molehills come to look like mountains.

This magnification of danger and hurt is prevalent on campus today. It no longer matters what a person intended to say, or how a reasonable listener would interpret a statement—what matters is whether any individual feels offended by it. If so, the speaker has committed a “microaggression,” and the offended party’s purely subjective reaction is a sufficient basis for emailing a dean or filing a complaint with the university’s “bias response team.” The net effect is that both professors and students today report that they are walking on eggshells. This interferes with the process of free inquiry and open debate—the active ingredients in a college education.

And if that’s the case already, what of the kids still in grammar school, constantly reminded they might accidentally hurt each other with the wrong words? When today’s 8-year-olds become the 18-year-olds starting college, will they still view free speech as worthy of protecting? As Daniel Shuchman, chairman of the free speech-promoting Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), puts it, “How likely are they to consider the First Amendment essential if they start learning in fifth grade that you’re forbidden to say—or even think—certain things, especially at school?”

Parents, teachers, and professors are talking about the growing fragility they see. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the overprotection of children and the hypersensitivity of college students could be two sides of the same coin. By trying so hard to protect our kids, we’re making them too safe to succeed.

Children on a Leash

If you’re over 40, chances are good that you had scads of free time as a child—after school, on weekends, over the summer. And chances are also good that, if you were asked about it now, you’d go on and on about playing in the woods and riding your bike until the streetlights came on.

Today many kids are raised like veal. Only 13 percent of them even walk to school. Many who take the bus wait at the stop with parents beside them like bodyguards. For a while, Rhode Island was considering a bill that would prohibit children from getting off the bus in the afternoon if there wasn’t an adult waiting to walk them home. This would have applied until seventh grade.

As for summer frolicking, campers don’t just have to take a buddy with them wherever they go, including the bathroom. Some are now required to take two—one to stay with whoever gets hurt, the other to run and get a grown-up. Walking to the john is treated like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

After school, kids no longer come home with a latchkey and roam the neighborhood. Instead, they’re locked into organized, supervised activities. Youth sports are a $15 billion business that has grown by 55 percent since just 2010. Children as young as third grade are joining traveling teams—which means their parents spend a lot of time in the car, too. Or they’re at tutoring. Or they’re at music lessons. And if all else fails, they are in their rooms, online.

Even if parents want to shoo their kids outside—and don’t come home till dinner!—it’s not as easy as it once was. Often, there are no other children around to play with. Even more dishearteningly, adults who believe it’s good for young people to run some errands or play kickball down the street have to think twice about letting them, because busybodies, cops, and social workers are primed to equate “unsupervised” with “neglected and in danger.”

You may remember the story of the Meitivs in Maryland, investigated twice for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home together from the park. Or the Debra Harrell case in South Carolina, where a mom was thrown in jail for allowing her 9-year-old to play at the sprinkler playground while she worked at McDonald’s. Or the 8-year-old Ohio boy who was supposed to get on the bus to Sunday school, but snuck off to the Family Dollar store instead. His dad was arrested for child endangerment.

These examples represent a new outlook: the belief that anytime kids are doing anything on their own, they are automatically under threat. But that outlook is wrong. The crime rate in America is back down to what it was in 1963, which means that most of today’s parents grew up playing outside when it was more dangerous than it is today. And it hasn’t gotten safer because we’re hovering over our kids. All violent crime is down, including against adults.

Danger Things

And yet it doesn’t feel safer. A 2010 study found “kidnapping” to be the top parental fear, despite the fact that merely being a passenger in a car is far more dangerous. Nine kids were kidnapped and murdered by strangers in 2011, while 1,140 died in vehicles that same year. While Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes in 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature that life in most countries is safer today than at any time in human history, the press keeps pushing paranoia. This makes stepping back feel doubly risky: There’s the fear of child kidnappers and the fear of Child Protective Services.

At times, it seems like our culture is conjuring dangers out of thin air, just to have something new to worry about. Thus, the Boulder Public Library in Colorado recently forbade anyone under 12 to enter without an adult, because “children may encounter hazards such as stairs, elevators, doors, furniture, electrical equipment, or other library patrons.” Ah, yes, kids and library furniture. Always a lethal combo.

Happily, the library backed off that rule, perhaps thanks to merciless mocking in the media. But saner minds don’t always prevail. At Mesa Elementary School, which also happens to be in Boulder, students got a list of the items they could not bring to the science fair. These included “chemicals,” “plants in soil,” and “organisms (living or dead).” And we wonder why American children score so low on international tests.

But perhaps the single best example of how fantastically fearful we’ve become occurred when the city of Richland, Washington, got rid of all the swings on its school playgrounds. The love of swinging is probably older than humanity itself, given our arboreal origins. But as a school district spokesman explained, “Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

You may think your town has avoided such overkill, but is there a merry-go-round at your local park, or a see-saw? Most likely they, too, have gone the way of lawn darts. The Consumer Product Safety Commission even warns parks of “tripping hazards, like…tree stumps and rocks,” a fact unearthed (so to speak) by Philip Howard, author of 2010’s Life Without Lawyers.

The problem is that kids learn by doing. Trip over a tree stump and you learn to look down. There’s an old saying: Prepare your child for the path, not the path for your child. We’re doing the opposite.

Ironically, there are real health dangers in not walking, or biking, or hopping over that stump. A Johns Hopkins study this summer found that the typical 19-year-old is as sedentary as a 65-year-old. The Army is worried that its recruits don’t know how to skip or do somersaults.

But the cost of shielding kids from risks goes well beyond the physical, as a robust body of research has shown.

Of Trophies and Traumas

A few years ago, Boston College psychology professor emeritus Peter Gray was invited by the head of counseling services at a major university to a conference on “the decline in resilience among students.” The organizer said that emergency counseling calls had doubled in the last five years. What’s more, callers were seeking help coping with everyday problems, such as arguments with a roommate. Two students had dialed in because they’d found a mouse in their apartment. They also called the police, who came and set a mousetrap. And that’s not to mention the sensitivity around grades. To some students, a B is the end of the world. (To some parents, too.)

Free play has little in common with the “play” we give children today. In organized activities, adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

Part of the rise in calls could be attributed to the fact that admitting mental health issues no longer carries the stigma it once did, an undeniably positive development. But it could also be a sign, Gray realized, that failing at basic “adulting” no longer carries the stigma it once did. And that is far more troubling.

Is this outcome the apotheosis of participation-trophy culture? It’s easy to scoff at a society that teaches kids that everything they do deserves applause. But more disturbing is the possibility that those trophies taught kids the opposite lesson: that they’re so easily hurt, they can’t handle the sad truth that they’re not the best at something.

Not letting your kid climb a tree because he might fall robs him of a classic childhood experience. But being emotionally overprotective takes away something else. “We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to…experience failure and realize they can survive it,” Gray has said. When Lenore’s son came in eighth out of nine teams in a summer camp bowling league, he got an eighth-place trophy. The moral was clear: We don’t think you can cope with the negative emotions of finishing second-to-last.

Of course, it’s natural to want to see kids happy. But the real secret to happiness isn’t more high fives; it’s developing emotional resilience. In our mania for physical safety, coupled with our recent tendency to talk about “emotional safety,” we have systematically deprived our children of the thousands of challenging—and sometimes upsetting—experiences that they need in order to learn that resiliency. And in our quest to protect them, we have stolen from children the best resilience training known to man: free play.

Play’s the Thing

All mammals play. It is a drive installed by Mother Nature. Hippos do backflips in the water. Dogs fetch sticks. And gazelles run around, engaging in a game that looks an awful lot like tag.

Why would they do that? They’re wasting valuable calories and exposing themselves to predators. Shouldn’t they just sit quietly next to their mama gazelles, exploring the world through the magic of PBS Kids?

It must be because play is even more important to their long-term survival than simply being “safe.” Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.

The older kids, meanwhile, throw the ball more softly to the younger ones. They’re learning empathy. And if someone yells, “Let’s play on just one leg!”—something they couldn’t do at Little League, with championships (and trophies!) on the line—the kids discover what it means to come up with and try out a different way of doing things. In Silicon Valley terms, they “pivot” and adopt a “new business model.” They also learn that they, not just grown-ups, can collectively remake the rules to suit their needs. That’s called participatory democracy.

Best of all, without adults intervening, the kids have to do all the problem solving for themselves, from deciding what game to play to making sure the teams are roughly equal. Then, when there’s an argument, they have to resolve it themselves. That’s a tough skill to learn, but the drive to continue playing motivates them to work things out. To get back to having fun, they first have to come up with a solution, so they do. This teaches them that they can disagree, hash it out, and—perhaps with some grumbling—move on.

These are the very skills that are suddenly in short supply on college campuses.

“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and generally take control of their own lives,” Gray writes in 2013’s Free to Learn (Basic Books). “Nothing we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”

Unstructured, unsupervised time for play is one of the most important things we have to give back to kids if we want them to be strong and happy and resilient.

Where Have All the Paperboys Gone?

It’s not just that kids aren’t playing much on their own. These days, they’re not doing much of anything on their own. In an article in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin admits that “when my daughter was 10, my husband and I suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult.”

In earlier generations, this would have seemed a bizarre and wildly overprotective upbringing. Society had certain age-related milestones that most people agreed on. Kids might be trusted to walk to school by first grade. They might get a latchkey at 8, take on a newspaper route around 10, start babysitting at 12. But over the past generation or so, those milestones disappeared—buried by fears of kidnapping, the rise of supervised activities, and the pre-eminence of homework. Parents today know all about the academic milestones their kids are supposed to reach, but not about the moments when kids used to start joining the world.

It’s not necessarily their fault. Calls to eight newspapers in North Carolina found none that would take anyone under the age of 18 to deliver papers. A police chief in New Albany, Ohio, went on record saying kids shouldn’t be outside on their own till age 16, “the threshold where you see children getting a little bit more freedom.” A study in Britain found that while just under half of all 16- to 17-year-olds had jobs as recently as 1992, today that number is 20 percent.

The responsibility expected of kids not so long ago has become almost inconceivable. Published in 1979, the book Your 6-Year-old: Loving and Defiant includes a simple checklist for what a child entering first grade should be able to do: Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored? Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels? Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to a store, school, playground, or friend’s home?

Hang on. Walk to the store at 6—alone?

It’s tempting to blame “helicopter parents” for today’s less resilient kids. But when all the first-graders are walking themselves to school, it’s easy to add yours to the mix. When your child is the only one, it’s harder. And that’s where we are today. Norms have dramatically changed. The kind of freedom that seemed unremarkable a generation ago has become taboo, and in some cases even illegal.

A Very Hampered Halloween

In Waynesboro, Georgia, “trick or treaters” must be 12 or younger; they must be in a costume; and they must be accompanied by an adult at least 21 years of age. So if you have kids who are 15, 10, and 8, you can’t send them out together. The 15-year-old is not allowed to dress up, yet she won’t be considered old enough to supervise her siblings for another six years. And this is on the one night of the entire year we traditionally let children pretend to be adults.

Other schools and community centers now send letters home asking parents not to let their children wear scary costumes. Some even organize “trunk or treats”—cars parked in a circle, trunks open and filled with candy, thus saving the kids from having to walk around the neighborhood or knock on doors. (That would be tiring and terrifying.) If this is childhood, is it any wonder college kids also expect to be micromanaged on Halloween?

At Yale in 2015, after 13 college administrators signed a letter outlining appropriate vs. inappropriate costume choices for students, the childhood development expert and campus lecturer Erika Christakis suggested that it would be better to allow kids to think for themselves. After all, Halloween is supposed to be about pushing boundaries. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little obnoxious…or, yes, offensive?” she wrote. “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—your capacity—to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

Apparently, yes. Angry students mobbed her husband, the professor Nicholas Christakis, surrounding him in the courtyard of the residential college where he served as master. They screamed obscenities and demanded he apologize for believing, along with his wife, that college students are in fact capable of handling offensive costumes on Halloween. “Be quiet!” a student shouted at him at one point. “As master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students!” She did not take kindly to his response that, to the contrary, he sees it as his job to create a space where students can grow intellectually.

As it turns out, Halloween is the perfect Petri dish for observing what we have done to childhood. We didn’t think anything was safe enough for young people. And now we are witnessing the results.

No Fun and No Joy

When parents curtail their kids’ independence, they’re not just depriving the younglings of childhood fun. They are denying themselves the grown-up joy of seeing their kids do something smart, brave, or kind without parental guidance.

It’s the kind of joy described by a Washington Post columnist who answered the phone one day and was shocked to find her 8-year-old son on the other end. He’d accidentally gone home when he was supposed to stay after school. Realizing she wasn’t there, he decided to walk to the store a few blocks away—his first time. The mom raced over, fearing God knows what, and rushed in only to find her son happily helping the shopkeeper stock the shelves with meat. He’d had a snack and done his homework, too. It was an afternoon he’d never forget, and neither would his very proud mother.

When we don’t let our kids do anything on their own, we don’t get to see just how competent they can be—and isn’t that, ultimately, the greatest reward of parenting? We need to make it easier for grown-ups to let go while living in a society that keeps warning them not to. And we need to make sure they won’t get arrested for it.

What Is To Be Done?

By trying to keep children safe from all risks, obstacles, hurt feelings, and fears, our culture has taken away the opportunities they need to become successful adults. In treating them as fragile—emotionally, socially, and physically—society actually makes them so.

To combat this problem, we have established a new nonpartisan nonprofit, the Let Grow Foundation. Our goal is to restore resilience by overthrowing the culture of overprotection. We teamed up with Gray, the professor whose research we highlighted above, and FIRE’s Shuchman, a New York investment fund manager who is now our chairman.

We are building an organization that seeks to change the social norms, policies, and laws that pressure and intimidate parents, schools, and towns into coddling their kids. We will research the effects of excessive caution, study the link between independence and success, and launch projects to give kids back some free time and free play. Most of all, the Let Grow Foundation will reject the assumption of fragility and promote intellectual, physical, and emotional resilience.

Children know that their parents had more freedom to roam than they do, and more unscheduled time to read or tinker or explore. They also realize that older generations were trusted to roll with some punches, at school and beyond. We hope kids today will start demanding that same independence and respect for themselves. It’s their freedom that has been chiseled away, after all.

We want them to insist on their right to engage not just with the physical world, but also with the world of ideas. We want them to hear, read, and voice opinions that go against the grain. We want them to be insulted by the assumption that they and their classmates are so easily hurt that arguments must stop before they start. To this end, we hope to encourage their skepticism about the programs and policies that are ostensibly there to “protect” them from discomfort.

If this effort is successful, we’ll soon see kids outside again. Common setbacks will be considered “resilience moments” rather than traumas. Children will read widely, express themselves freely, and work through disagreements without automatically calling on authority figures to solve their problems for them. The more adults step back, the more we believe kids will step up, growing brave in the face of risk and just plain happy in their independence.

Children today are safer and smarter than this culture gives them credit for. They deserve the freedom we had. The country’s future prosperity and freedom depend on it.

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson

Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and president of the nonprofit Let Grow Foundation.

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, author of The Righteous Mind (Pantheon Books), and a co-founder and board member of Let Grow.

De Bellaigue: Eton and the Making of a Modern Elite



The world’s most famous school aspires to become an agent of social change; but, as old boy Christopher de Bellaigue learns when he goes back, it is also an increasingly effective way for the global elite to give its offspring an expensive leg up in life


One of Simon Henderson’s first decisions after taking over last summer as headmaster of Eton College was to move his office out of the labyrinthine, late-medieval centre of the school and into a corporate bunker that has been appended (“insensitively”, as an architectural historian might say) to a Victorian teaching block. Here, in classless, optimistic tones, Henderson lays out a vision of a formerly Olympian institution becoming a mirror of modern society, diversifying its intake so that anyone “from a poor boy at a primary school in the north of England to one from a great fee-paying prep school in the south” can aspire to be educated there (so long as he’s a he, of course), joyfully sharing expertise, teachers and facilities with the state sector – in short, striving “to be relevant and to contribute”. His aspiration that Eton should become an agent of social change is not one that many of his 70 predecessors in the job over the past six centuries would have shared; and it is somehow no surprise to hear that he has incurred the displeasure of some of the more traditionally minded boys by high-fiving them. What had happened, I wondered as I left the bunker, to the Eton I knew when I was a pupil in the late 1980s – a school so grand it didn’t care what anyone thought of it, a four-letter word for the Left, a source of pride for the Right, and a British brand to rival Marmite and King Arthur?

To judge from appearances in this historic little town across the Thames from Windsor Castle, which many tourists think is worth a visit between the Round Tower and Legoland, the answer is actually not a lot. Aside from the fact that there are more brown, black and Asian faces around, the boys go about in their undertakers’ uniforms of tailcoats and starched collars, as they seem to have done for centuries, learning in the old schoolrooms and depleting testosterone on the old playing fields before being locked up for the night in houses they share with 50 of their peers (each boy has his own room). As the absence of girls demonstrates, Eton considers itself exempt from the modern belief in the integration of the sexes that so many independent schools now espouse. And it remains a boarding school – a form of education which is in decline, and which some people consider a mild form of child abuse. Add to all this the statue of Henry VI, who founded the school in 1440, amid the uneven cobbles of School Yard, and the masters cycling in their gowns to their mid-morning meeting, resembling nothing so much as a synod of ravens, and you get the opposite impression to that conveyed by Henderson: one of solidity, immobility – anything but dynamism.

To the question, “which is the ‘real’ Eton?” – the laboratory for progressive ideas about social inclusion, or an annexe to Britain’s heritage industry – the answer is of course “both”.

All schools are defined by their intake, but none more so than Eton, which for hundreds of years received the pipsqueak sons of the ruling class and disgorged them to become statesmen and administrators. (Nineteen Old Etonians – OES – including David Cameron, have served as prime minister.) This has now changed, and a new admissions policy has brought in poor clever boys, foreign boys and “new money” that the school would not have welcomed in the past. A recent parent described his surprise at finding out that the commonest name at the school was Patel.

At the same time, many elements of the timeless, traditional Eton have been preserved. They’re among the reasons new parents send their sons here, along with the belief that the school will coax and push and cajole the best out of the boy – that Eton is, as the headmaster puts it, “unashamed in its pursuit of excellence”. The school aims to educate the elite, as it always has, but it has reshaped itself in order to accommodate a new elite defined by money, brains and ambition, not pedigree, titles and acres.

A delicate relationship seems likely to exist at Eton in the coming years, between deserving boys of modest background who enter the school on bursaries, often in the face of incredulity or even opposition at home, and the poised, prepared, nutritionally optimised children of the new upper class whose parents are expected to finance all this largesse – not simply by paying their fees, but also by responding to pretty much continuous appeals for money. The latest “exciting and strictly limited opportunity” is the chance to have your name inscribed on a stone around School Yard, costing £10,000 spread over four consecutive tax years.

Eton’s rich and poor coalesce and become each other’s raison d’être in the context of the school’s ambition to be “needs-blind” in the manner of Harvard – that is to say, able to offer a boy a place regardless of his parents’ ability to pay. Eton’s big plan was evoked succinctly by William Waldegrave, the provost (head of the governing body), when he told me, “what I hope is that this school will continue to produce the prime minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and entrepreneurs of all sorts, but that three-quarters of them will have been here on bursaries.”

Waldegrave and Henderson may be the latest advocates of Eton’s transformation, but the process began a generation ago. Over the past quarter-century many places have opened up to poorer families, with some 270 of the pupil body of 1,300 now receiving substantial or complete fees remission and the school recently taking out a £45m loan to raise this number further. The school can also draw on a very large endowment by British standards. As of August 2014 it had investment and property portfolios worth £300m and an annual income from school fees of around £45m, not to mention all the immovable assets and art collections. For all that, many more millions need to be wrung from parents and OES if the school is to become genuinely needs-blind.

As the school mediates between the aspiring rich and the deserving poor, a third group fights for survival: old “Eton” families who have been sending boys to the school for generations. This group dominated the Eton I attended in the 1980s, when the school was still a barely-selective rite of passage for the descendants of Britain’s Edwardian upper and upper-middle classes – complacent, snobby and full of surnames recognisable from the inter-war diaries of Harold Nicolson. This tribe’s representation is shrinking. The percentage of pupils at the school with an OE father went down from 60% in 1960 to 33% in 1994 to 20% now. Eton has gone from being an heirloom handed down through the generations to a revolving door.

Rainbow education

Pupils cheer during the Eton wall game, a sport unique to the college

No elite connives in its own dethroning, however, and Eton is a living illustration of the oft-forgotten truth that social mobility cuts both ways. Having striven to get their son into a school whose fabric reeks of continuity, it would not be a surprise if the new Eton families showed tenacity in trying to hang on to their new status by forming dynasties of their own. This new elite, floating on its liquid wealth, is probably better placed to preserve itself than the old, landed one. As often as not Mum is as high powered as Dad, and the progeny are primed not to rest on inherited laurels but to go out and achieve material success.

Here, in the emergence of a new upper class – more fluid, more international, and yet revelling in its association with the old, snobbish, British continuities – lies the tension at the heart of Eton’s ambition to become a meritocracy. To borrow from the Patek Philippe advert, “You never actually own a place at Eton. You merely look after it for the next generation”.

Iperformed badly in my entrance test to Eton and squeaked in only after my mother pleaded with the admissions tutor that her father had been at the school: in those days, Eton took care of its own. The establishment I entered in the spring of 1985 looked to me like the embodiment of continuity, but across the country, the mood was turning hostile. The immediate post-war period had witnessed three Etonian prime ministers in succession (one of whom, Harold Macmillan, named no fewer than 35 OES to serve in his government), but the squall of egalitarianism in the late 1960s, aggravated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s ethos of self-help and aspiration, loosened the school’s grip on power. In 1990, when Thatcher lost the Tory-party leadership, Douglas Hurd, who stood to succeed her, found his Eton background being used against him. “I thought I was running for leadership of the Conservative Party,” he complained, “not some demented Marxist sect.” Hurd lost the election – and the keys to 10 Downing Street – to John Major, a state-educated former insurance clerk.

Tony Blair’s New Labour administration of the late 1990s and early 2000s married Thatcher’s brassy meritocracy with a social conscience. Oxford, Cambridge and the other major universities came under pressure to admit more state-educated pupils, and private schools were told to share their facilities with publicly funded neighbours or forfeit the tax breaks to which they, as charities, were entitled. In 1999, in a clear sign that the school could no longer count on its old links to parliament, almost 700 hereditary peers (many if not most of them OES) were expelled from the House of Lords.

In any case by now Eton had read the runes. There was a feeling among masters and governors that the school needed to raise standards in order to maintain market share in the new, more meritocratic Britain – to keep feeding boys to Oxford and Cambridge; to keep producing prime ministers – and a more competitive admissions system was the key. But the school had an image problem. It was widely considered a closed shop that would favour the dim and idle viscount over the up-and-coming City trader’s brilliant, motivated son, with the result that the City trader didn’t apply. The school’s policy of allowing parents to register their sons at birth for the so-called “Eton List” exemplified the school’s built-in prejudice in favour of its own. The Eton List effectively allowed an OE to sew up a place for his son while the boy was in nappies.

In 1990 the Eton List was abolished and a decade later a uniform entrance test and interview were introduced for all would-be entrants at the age of 11, under which the children of OESenjoyed no head start over the sons of people who had not been privately educated, or, for that matter, the offspring of successful Pakistani immigrants or Malaysian electronic-chip manufacturers. In time the tests got harder, the yearly intake cleverer, and the dim, idle viscounts were turned away. (Clever, industrious viscounts continued to get in.) Aided by its proximity to London, whose attractiveness as a safe deposit box for the super-wealthy was on the rise, the school became heavily oversubscribed. (In the 1950s the school had empty places.) Each year, around five and a half boys compete for each of the 260 places on offer.

Although Eton’s internal reforms were well under way by the time Tony Little, Henderson’s predecessor, took over in 2002, this former scholar (an Etonian in the 1960s, he was the first member of his family to be educated over the age of 14) introduced them to a sceptical world. He was “more foreign secretary than home secretary”, as one master recalls, giving interviews and making friends with educational reformers in the Blair government; his railing against the “deadly cloud of class awareness” rates as one of the more unexpected interventions from an Eton headmaster.

Under Little, Eton sponsored a state boarding school up the road in Ascot and a sixth-form college in the London borough of Newham. Bursary schemes were also set up by wealthy OES. At first, bringing in boys from some of the poorest parts of Britain and overseas turned out to be surprisingly difficult; heads weren’t keen on losing their brightest boys, and parents needed some convincing that Eton wasn’t another planet. A documentary about three Eton scholarship boys that was shown on the BBC’s children’s channel in 2014 led to a spike in applications, the school’s access officer told me, “not because parents saw it, but because their sons did, and thought, ‘I’d like to do that.’” Of two former bursary boys in their 20s I recently spoke to, one has gone on to become a speech-writer for a Conservative MP and aims to go into parliament; another is a rising actor.

Changes to the admissions policy have seen the school’s non-Anglo-Saxon intake rise considerably, though for all the foreign names one sees on pigeon holes in each house, Eton remains a “British” school, and its policy of diversifying its intake seems aimed at preventing it from being captured by any particular sub-group of the global elite. Traditionalists have chafed at the more international atmosphere, however, and Little described how one “finger-jabbing” OE accused him of being a “socialist who won’t rest until you have built a mosque on the school playing fields”.

Visiting Eton this spring, I spent an hour in College Library, watching the school’s Arabic master show three 16-year-old Palestinians some medieval manuscripts that the school had recently purchased, among them a page from a ninth-century Kufic Koran. Born in refugee camps in Lebanon, these boys had been flown to Britain for interview. Come September, two of them will be in tails.

Little’s memorial at Eton is a shiny research complex, the donor-funded Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, which joined forces with Harvard to advance research into the adolescent brain – all synaptic pruning and neural pathways. The centre’s mission statement is a slightly laboured attempt to establish Britain’s poshest school as a public good: “we want Eton and the wider UK to be at the forefront of new developments in teaching and learning, for the benefit of all.”

The new Eton – friendly to the international plutocracy while also containing strong elements of political correctness – naturally went down badly with the established Eton families whose names adorn the war-memorial plaques and the sporting cups, and whose sons have been rejected in big numbers. In 2009, at a reunion I attended, Waldegrave delivered a speech lauding diversity of intake and beating the drum for an appeal. “They want our money,” my neighbour growled, “but not our sons.” In the main, however, the old guard seems resigned to its demotion, in part because, however exercised they are by the newcomers, many OES would be unable to afford the school even if their sons were admitted.

My father paid around £6,000 per year (around £14,500 today) for me to go to Eton in the late 1980s. The annual fees are now £34,000 ($50,000, or about £7,000 more than the average annual wage in Britain). The merely well off – the country solicitors and provincial landowners who once formed the school’s backbone – have been priced out. In the words of one OE, “many people in my circle have decided that it’s not worth it, and that a good state school will do just as well.”

To say that there is a cultural divide between the old Eton and the new one would be an understatement. Traditional parents wince as they describe corporate-hospitality tents and sushi bars being erected by brash parvenus for the Fourth of June, the school’s annual shindig (which is not, of course, held on June 4th). Back in the 1980s it was hard-boiled eggs and wine out of a box, consumed while rocking on one’s haunches on a picnic blanket.

For all the talk of 270 bursary boys and rising, furthermore, the vaunted egalitarianism of the new Eton is not always obvious. “We tried to identify the bursary boys who are with my son,” remarked a pupil’s mother, “but his year group includes two oligarchs’ sons and a family with four children all at different English boarding schools. Our suspicions fell on the parents of an Indian boy but then we bumped into them while skiing in Val d’Isère.”

Some newcomers feel that change hasn’t gone far enough. As an American mother said, “you still get some students who would have been there 100 years ago, and they’re not always the cleverest. But”, she went on with evident relief, “they don’t dominate.” Her only regret is that Little didn’t bring in girls. Henderson is rumoured to want to abolish tails, though that would face opposition from the boys, who are attached, in quite a sweet way, to Etonian traditions.

Master plan

Simon Henderson, the current headmaster

Inevitably, the cultural divisions felt by parents are less important to the pupils, in part because the uniform has the advantage of flattening socio-economic disparities. One former bursary boy told me, “Only after I left the school, and visited my friends in the amazing flats they had been given by their parents, did I realise just how rich they were.”

With every place at Eton so keenly contested, enterprising parents sometimes try the back door. The recently retired head of admissions, Charles Milne, was visited by a famous Russian oligarch whose son had been placed on a waiting list after failing to win a place in the entrance test. “They crowded into my little office,” Milne explained, “the Russian and his two bodyguards – one of them eight foot tall. I began explaining how the system works, that other boys would have to give up their places for his son to get in.” Milne had not got far before the oligarch raised a hand to silence him. “Mr Milne,” he said, “I won’t waste your time. When you have decided what needs to be done for my son to get his place, you will tell me.” The boy ended up at another school. Another very rich foreigner, whose son had been rejected, phoned Milne to tell him he was a “fucking bastard”. It became an in-joke between Milne and Little. “When I went to see the headmaster, he would greet me, ‘hello, fucking bastard’.”

Given the intense competition to get a place, it’s no wonder that the waiting room before the test (much harder than the one I took) is like the Russian roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter”. Children sit ashen-faced while their parents confer in whispers. No one speaks to anyone else; the tension is palpable. Some boys burst into tears when they get into the interview room.

The contest isn’t simply between candidates. It’s a battle of wits between a school whose proclaimed intention is to identify deserving talent and ambition, and parents who will do everything to stack things in their child’s favour. Well-off, well-organised parents prepare their sons ruthlessly, hiring tutors, making the boys do ceaseless verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests and sending them to interview classes to learn how to be sparky and empathetic. The school is wise to these constantly evolving efforts to game the system, however, and a lot of boys who have done brilliantly in the computerised test are turned down because they aren’t “interesting” at inter­view. “If a boy makes me laugh,” says one of the school’s interviewers, “he stands a good chance of getting in.”

The battle to enter Eton is the first exchange in a relationship between parents, boys and school that is characterised by high expectations. The rich parents want their kids to flourish and go on to an excellent university, preferably Oxford or Cambridge. The school wants these parents to show their appreciation in five figures. The bursary boys need to validate the decision to give them bursaries. Meanwhile the OES bite their fingernails and hope that the 20% figure won’t go down or the fees rise even further.

The story of Eton’s reconquest of the commanding heights of Britain is one of gradual rehabilitation. With the weakening of the hard left, the prospect of private schools being abolished receded, while Eton’s efforts to present itself less as a throwback to an earlier age than a guarantor of achievement in the current one began to pay dividends. Though confessing to an Eton education remains a conversation-stopper in liberal-left north London, in general the school has become less of a lightning rod for class resentment. And over the past decade OES have become more pervasive than ever.

Back in the 1950s it was the fact of having been to Eton, more than the education you received there, which set you up for success. Now the inverse is true. The teaching is superb, the facilities unparalleled, the results impressive. This year 85 Etonians were offered places at Oxford or Cambridge. St Paul’s, Westminster and Winchester have higher Oxbridge admission rates, but then those schools always specialised in cultivating clever boys. What’s interesting about Eton is the way it changed its focus from class to brains. The school has seen off the threats to its continued relevance by taking in clever boys, and sending out cleverer young men into a world that no longer defers to inherited privilege, and prizes cleverness and ambition above all.

This shift in strategy has changed the culture of the school. The ordeal of the entrance test; the upwardly mobile parents; the fact that the boys know they got into the school on their own merits, not because their fathers are OES – all this militates against the studied unconcern, the famous “entitlement”, that was the default pose of Etonians in the 1980s. Just as it was intensely uncool to be industrious then, now the opposite is the case. “It’s the boy who doesn’t take advantage of all the opportunities at Eton who’s considered odd,” a current Etonian told me, “not those who do.”

A strong work ethic comes naturally in a school that opts in to the hardest public exams and fosters competitive relationships between pupils. One recent Etonian noticed this cultural peculiarity while observing a debate at St Paul’s, Concord, a posh American boarding school. (Eton’s debating teams often sweep the board at inter-school competitions.) “The Americans were elaborately polite to each other,” he recalled, “whereas at Eton we could be brutal, saying, ‘that’s an incredibly stupid thing to say’.”

Not a sushi bar in sight

The Fourth of June in the 1980s

More than schools with higher Oxbridge acceptance rates, Eton stresses activities outside the classroom. Drama, one of its particular strengths, is an opportunity for collective endeavour that also contributes to the legendary Etonian self-assurance. The production budget at the 400-seat Farrer Theatre is higher than that at one of Britain’s top drama schools. No wonder scouts and agents are often to be spotted there, looking for the next Eddie Redmayne – one of Eton’s many recent showbiz alumni.

The investment in a wide range of extra-curricular interests may help explain why, when it comes to success defined more broadly than through exam results, Eton comes top. According to the Sutton Trust, a charity which works to widen opportunity, the school educates just 0.04% of Britain’s secondary school population, but some 4% of nearly 8,000 “leading people” whose education the trust tracked were OES. Eton produces more than three times as many big cheeses as its nearest rival, Winchester (Henderson’s alma mater). Taking into account Eton’s larger student body, its high-achiever output rate is 50% higher.

And that figure underplays Eton’s success, for OES cluster at the very pinnacle of British life. The closer you get to power and achievement, in other words, the more likely you are to run into one. David Cameron and his rival for the soul of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, both attended the school. So did Prince William and Prince Harry, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the actors Tom Hiddleston and Damian Lewis as well as Redmayne, the adventurers Bear Grylls and Ranulph Fiennes and the Nobel prize-winning biologist Sir John Gurdon. The law, business and banking fester with Old Etonians.

It’s very likely that Eton has a higher “strike rate” than it did in the 1980s, when for every top banker or ambassador there were one or two who conspicuously failed to enter well-paid careers (or indeed careers of any sort), and ended up cultivating marijuana or running a small country estate into the ground. No father of an Etonian in the 1980s would have admitted to thinking about anything so crass as a “return” on his investment, nor were we boys party to our parents’ financial affairs. This too has changed. A recent bursary boy who attended the school with a third of his fees remitted told me that his parents, both teachers at state schools, had sold the family home in order to afford the other two-thirds.

Britain no longer has a ruling class, and the boys who enter Eton are anyway too varied to constitute one. Yet by the time they leave they belong to something like an emerging global elite. They have in common brains, determination and, in many cases, an aspirational family that sets great store by worldly success. These qualities got them to Eton, and they are deployed again and again to ensure they get the most out of the experience. Whether it’s arranging holiday internships with City law firms, Skype tutorials in the run-up to a geography exam, or a reels refresher course before the Caledonian Ball, parents are constantly (and expensively) bolting on all kinds of optional, mini-advantages to the considerable advantage of an Eton education. The great project of modern elite parenting is all about leaving nothing to chance.

There is, of course, a natural tension between the school’s role in this enterprise and its ambition to be an engine of social mobility – just as there is at the American Ivy League universities that Eton’s admissions system seeks to emulate. A small number of Etonians are poor; some are only modestly well-off; but the majority of them are seriously wealthy by the standards of most of the world. One of the consequences of Eton’s transformation is thus to ensure that the children of the very rich stay that way.

For all its inbuilt advantages, the task facing Eton at the turn of the millennium was a tricky one. It needed to entrench its position at the top of British life while carrying out controversial and difficult reforms. Few would argue that the changes have been anything but necessary and skilfully accomplished, but they have come at an intangible price. A recently retired master complained that teaching has got more boring because boys constantly harp on the need to stick to the syllabus: “are we going to need this for the exam, sir?”

Eton used to have a strong sideline in rebels and oddballs. My time there was enriched by exposure to some truly unusual characters, both masters and boys, which engendered a tolerance of human foibles and acted as vital redress from a hierarchical, rules-based institution. Inevitably, as the school has grown more concerned with outcomes and assessments and ever keener to maximise the use to which its facilities are put, the eccentrics have been purged from the institution.

The value of such people is hard to quantify; their achievement doesn’t show through in the exam results, but in the diffusion of a spirit of irreverence and scepticism. One boy in my house, William Sinclair, was a brilliant subversive and satirist of the school; his lampooning of the authorities and disrespect for conventional hierarchies among the boys punctured the pretension and self-regard to which Eton is easily prone. William’s planting of a live chicken in our housemaster’s bathtub was the least of his misdemeanours.

My tutor over my final years was Michael Kidson, a lop-shouldered historian who terrorised us in thrilling, beautiful, confident English, threw blackboard rubbers at boys who offended against syntax and grammar – I got one in the head for pluralising “protagonist” – and defended his oversexed spaniel for trying to solace itself against our thighs. (“Nothing wrong with a young man wanting a wank!”) Above all, Kidson was loyal and would fight fiercely for you if you got into trouble; several boys escaped expulsion thanks to his efforts. On all sorts of levels it is hard to imagine either Sinclair or Kidson being welcomed to today’s Eton, but back then they were among the school’s best-loved figures and knowing them seems as useful to me now as any City internship would have been.

Eton isn’t alone among reformed institutions to have got duller as it has got better, and few of the current boys’ families will rue the absence of eccentrics if their son gets his Oxbridge place. The school has gone from being a rite of passage for a now-defunct upper class to a coalition of different sorts of people who have signed up to an ambitious agenda that may not, in fact, be their own. If Eton hasn’t quite become the liberal, socially transformative institution the reformists seek, it is undeniably more discerning in allocating one of the best starts in life that money (or brains, or ambition) can get you.

Karpinski: Hyper Brain, Hyper Body: The Trouble With High IQ


Hyper Brain, Hyper Body: The Trouble With High IQ

Summary: A new study reveals an increased risk of psychological and physiological disorders in high IQ people compared to national averages. Researchers report 20% of Mensa members, with an IQ of 130 and over, have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, compared to 10% of the general public.

Source: Pitzer College.

A new study in the journal Intelligence reports that highly intelligent people have a significantly increased risk of suffering from a variety of psychological and physiological disorders.

Lead author of the study, Ruth Karpinski, says the findings have implications both for the study of intelligence and for psychoneuroimmunology, which examines how stress responses to the environment influence communication between the brain and immune system.

“Our findings are relevant because a significant portion of these individuals are suffering on a daily basis as a result of their unique emotional and physical overexcitabilities. It is important for the scientific community to examine high IQ as being front and center within the system of mechanisms that may be at play in these dysregulations,” she says.

Karpinski and her colleagues developed a hyper brain / hyper body theory of integration. It posits that individuals with high cognitive ability react with an overexcitable emotional and behavioral response to their environment. Due in part to this increased awareness of their surroundings, people with a high IQ then tend to experience an overexcitable, hyperreactive central nervous system.

“A minor insult such as a clothing tag or an unnatural sound may trigger a low level, chronic stress response which then activates a hyper body response. When the sympathetic nervous system becomes chronically activated, it finds itself in a continuous fight, flight, or freeze state that triggers a series of immune changes in both the body and the brain-altering behavior, mood, and functioning,” explains Dr. Nicole Tetreault, co-author.

To explore the premise, Karpinski and her colleagues surveyed 3,715 members of American Mensa, Ltd. whose documented IQ scores fall at or above 130. Each was asked to self-report their experiences of both diagnosed and/or suspected mood and anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and physiological diseases that include autoimmune disease, environmental and food allergies, and asthma. The team compared the survey data against the statistical national average for each disease or disorder.

“If high intelligence was not a risk factor for these diseases and disorders, we would see a similar prevalence rate between the two groups,” explains Audrey Kinase Kolb, co-author. “However, in this study, the Mensa population had significantly higher rates across the board. For example, just over 10% of the US has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, compared to 20% for Mensans. For these conditions, having a high intelligence is related to having between 2 to 4 times the chance of having a diagnosis compared to the average American.”

“While falling within the extreme right tail of the Bell Curve is generally touted as a ‘gift’ leading to exceptional outcomes, this is not always the case,” says Karpinski. “Those with high IQ possess unique intensities and overexcitabilities which can be at once both remarkable and disabling on many levels.”

Image shows a brain.

The results are surprising given that previous studies have shown high intelligence to be a protective factor for many health outcomes including heart disease, stroke, smoking-related cancers, respiratory disease, and dementia. However, these disorders and conditions are not specifically rooted in immune dysregulation. Additionally, these studies looked at increases in IQ, but stopped short of including participants with gifted intelligence in their samples.

“We know that for many of the examined conditions there must be a combination of genetics and environment for them to manifest,” says Karpinski. “The results of this study support our hyper brain/hyper body theory, and may help direct future studies regarding high intelligence as a potential genetic piece of a psychoneuroimmunological puzzle.”