Ben Best on the anatomical basis of mind

This isn’t a cryonics blog, by the way, this is a blog for whatever subject of general interest I’m obsessing over this month; it’s just that at the moment, that’s cryonics.

From Scientific justification of cryonics practice (Ben Best, Rejuvenation Res. 2008 Apr;11(2):493-503):

Most neuroscientists agree that the anatomical basis of mind is encoded in physical structures of the brain, particularly neuropil connectivity and synaptic strengths [44] and possibly neuronal epigenetic structure [45].

[…]

[44] Abraham WC, Robins A. Memory retention—the synaptic stability versus plasticity dilemma. Trends Neurosci. 2005 Feb;28(2):73-8.

[45] Arshavsky YI. “The seven sins” of the Hebbian synapse: can the hypothesis of synaptic plasticity explain long-term memory consolidation Prog Neurobiol. 2006 Oct;80(3):99-113.

Here, I think “mind” refers to those features of mind that persist from hour to hour since it clearly doesn’t cover shorter-term features. I’d appreciate expert guidance on this point: how accurate is this claim?

(Wikipedia: Neuropil Chemical synapse Epigenetics)

Society for Cryobiology statements on cryonics

I’ve managed to find out more about the Society for Cryobiology 1982 by-law barring cryonicists. This is just the documents; I may comment on them in a later post. Everything here comes from Alcor’s website; I didn’t find any other sources, but links of course welcome.

Section 2.04, Denial of Membership and Discipline of Members, reads in full as follows:

Upon a two-thirds vote of the Governors in office, the Board of Governors may refuse membership to applicants, or suspend or expel members (including both individual and institutional members), whose conduct is deemed detrimental to the Society, including applicants or members engaged in or who promote any practice or application which the Board of Governors deems incompatible with the ethical and scientific standards of the Society or as misrepresenting the science of cryobiology, including any practice or application of freezing deceased persons in the anticipation of their reanimation. Every member whose suspension or expulsion is under consideration shall be given written notice thereof at least fourteen (14) days before the vote on such suspension or expulsion, which notice shall state the grounds for the proposed action of the Board of Governors, and such member may petition the Board of Governors in writing before the vote.

sourceThis policy statement accompanies the by-law:

Society for Cryobiology

Policy Statement

The Society for Cryobiology has received inquiries regarding the policy of the Society toward the practice of freezing human cadavers in anticipation of eventual reanimation.

The Society recognizes and respects the well established freedom of individuals to hold and express their own opinions and to act, within lawful limits, according to their beliefs. Preferences regarding disposition of the dead are clearly a matter of personal choice and, therefore, inappropriate subjects of Society policy.

The Society does, however, take the position that cadaver freezing is not science. The knowledge necessary for the revival of whole mammals following freezing and for bringing the dead to life does not currently exist and can come only from conscientious and patient research in cryobiology, biology, chemistry, and medicine. The act of freezing a dead body and storing it indefinitely on the chance that some future generation may restore it to life is an act of faith, not science.

source Under threat of litigation from Mike Darwin, the final statement was considerably toned down; I include also earlier drafts that are at greater length.

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More on anti-cryonics writing

Further to my last blog post, A survey of anti-cryonics writing :

  • I copied the article to LessWrong.com after being encouraged to do so by users there who also gave me some great help improving the writing. It had 215 comments last I looked.
  • I received email from Ralph Merkle:
    I asked David Pegg to review an early copy of “The Technical Feasibility of Cryonics.” My exchange with him was published in Cryonics magazine in the July/August 1993 issue starting on page 22. I believe you will find it interesting.

    My response to Shermer’s story in Scientific American is on the web.

    And, of course, my thanks for your efforts to seek clarification from “critics” of their actual technical criticism (if any).

    I haven’t had trouble commenting, so any help anyone can provide reproducing and diagnosing these problems gratefully received.
  • I missed a couple of anti-cryonics articles in my survey:
  • I found this article in which John Bischof speaks out against cryonics, so I mailed him, and he very politely replied almost immediately to say that cryobiologists consider cryonics a “faith based approach”, and pointed me at the Society for Cryobiology home page. Pressed for more detail, he replied:
    I think the distinction is between a tissue being dead vs. alive at the time of freezing. I don’t believe there is anything I can possibly write that would further clarify that distinction.
    I’ve yet to reply to this email; I may write a more general open letter to cryonics critics and send him a link. As always, I’m grateful for the time taken to reply.
  • Updated 2010-02-16: I found this Detroit News article in which Society for Cryobiology President John K Critser voices a negative opinion. Email sent 2010-02-11, no reply so far.
  • Updated 2010-02-20: Have now emailed again everyone I emailed last time drawing their attention to these articles. Really hoping that some of what I’ve written here spurs one of them into writing a more detailed attack on some aspect of cryonics.
  • Updated 2010-02-20: Got a reply from Stephen Barrett MD of QuackWatch: “Sorry, I am not interested in further involvement in your project. ”

A survey of anti-cryonics writing

For its advocates, cryonics offers almost eternal life. To its critics, cryonics is pseudoscience; the idea that we could freeze someone today in such a way that future technology might be able to re-animate them is nothing more than wishful thinking on the desire to avoid death. Many who battle nonsense dressed as science have spoken out against it: see for example Nano Nonsense and Cryonics, a 2001 article by celebrated skeptic Michael Shermer; or check the Skeptic’s Dictionary or Quackwatch entries on the subject, or for more detail read the essay Cryonics–A futile desire for everlasting life by “Invisible Flan”.

That it seems so makes me sad, because to my naive eyes it seems like it might work and I would quite like to live forever, but I know that I don’t know enough to judge. The celebrated Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a story of a US general who spoke to him at a party and explained that one big challenge in desert warfare is keeping the tanks fuelled given the huge distances the fuel has to travel. What would really help, the general said, would be if boffins like Feynman could invent a sort of engine that was powered by sand. On this issue, I’m in the same position as the general; in the same way as a tank fuelled by sand seems plausible enough to him, it makes sense to me to imagine that however your brain stores information it probably has something to do with morphology and chemistry, so there’s a good chance it might not evaporate right away at the instant of legal death, and that freezing might be a way to keep the information there long enough for future societies to extract it with their future-technology scanning equipment.

And of course the pro-cryonics people have written reams and reams of material such as Ben Best’s Scientific Justification of Cryonics Practice on why they think this is exactly as plausible as I might think, and going into tremendous technical detail setting out arguments for its plausibility and addressing particular difficulties. It’s almost enough to make you want to sign up on the spot.

Except, of course, that plenty of totally unscientific ideas are backed by reams of scientific-sounding documents good enough to fool non-experts like me. Backed by the deep pockets of the oil industry, global warming denialism has produced thousands of convincing-sounding arguments against the scientific consensus on CO2 and AGW. Thankfully in that instance we have blogs like Tim Lambert’s Deltoid, RealClimate, and many others tracking the various ways that the denialists mislead, whether through cherry-picking evidence, misleading quotes from climate scientists, or outright lies. Their hard work means that denialists can barely move or speak without someone out there checking what they have to say against science’s best understanding and pointing out the misrepresentations and discrepancies. So before I pony up my £25 a month to sign up to cryonics life insurance, I want to read the Deltoid of cryonics — the articles that take apart what cryonics advocates write about what they do and really go into the scientific detail on why it doesn’t hang together.

Here’s my report on what I’ve found so far.

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