Mind Field (2017) s03e05 Episode Script

Should I Die?

Someday, I will die.
But should I? If I was offered a longer life, I would take that in a second.
But how long is too long? Is death something I should deny forever, or is death and the role it plays in the universe something I am better off accepting? I want to start by looking at a particular way death affects how we live and treat one another.
Terror Management Theory proposes that people like you and me manage the terror of death's inevitability by embracing cultural values.
That the more aware a person is of their own mortality, the more vehemently they will enforce their particular views of the world onto others.
Created by social psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, Terror Management Theory, or TMT, suggests that, often, we are afraid of change because we're afraid of death.
Each one of us has a worldview, a set of beliefs, customs and norms we identify with that can live on after our physical bodies die.
TMT suggest that rises in nationalism and prejudice are correlated with rises in the salience of mortality.
That is, how present the inevitability of death is in people's minds.
Now this role that death plays fascinates me, and two of TMT's originators, Jeff and Sheldon, have agreed to work with me on a pilot study of Terror Management Theory and real-life reminders of death.
What's your hypothesis today? Well, I think we're going to hope for the participants who are reminded of their mortality to be more punitive in their assessments.
See what happens.
For our study, we created a fake research center, staffed by actors, and invited participants to be a part of what they were told was a focus group about the criminal justice system.
During the actual study, each group will hear a list of several different crimes that have been committed, and will then be asked to propose a punishment for each offender with a severity level ranging from 1 to 7, with 1 being the most lenient and 7 being the most severe.
The control group will simply enter the survey room and be asked to answer the questions.
The experimental group, however, will first be exposed to reminders of their own mortality with strategically placed posters in the lobby.
Also, the questionnaires they fill out will include questions about their own death.
Decades of TMT research have shown that when presented with violations of common worldviews, those who are more aware of their own deaths will recommend bigger punishments for the crimes presented.
But will our real life reminders of death, not just the survey questions usually used, make a difference? Well, first, let's look at the control participants.
[woman] Well, thank you so much for being here.
Now, I cannot emphasize this enough.
There are no right or wrong answers.
This is just about your gut-level reactions.
All right, let's begin.
After raising millions of dollars in grant money to fund education for needy children, a fundraising manager unhappy with this life fled with all the money and was arrested months later in Tasmania, where he was living under a different name.
So, 1, least punishment: three months in prison; 7 is most severe: ten years in prison.
Please answer now.
This is one that I think does have worldviews on both sides.
[Michael] That is a lot of 7s.
If our control group is already maxing out like that, well, then our scale has no room in that direction to show any effect of mortality salience.
Discovering issues like this, learning how to better isolate mortality salience's effect, is exactly what a pilot test is for.
Hey, personal differences, huh? [woman] An imposter with no medical training posed as a surgeon and bungled a minor operation to remove a child's tonsils.
The patient recovered fully after additional treatment.
1 is six months on probation, 7 is ten years in prison.
[Sheldon] Okay.
If you are taking on the persona of a doctor, we would expect good behavior.
[woman] The surgeon botched the operation and was found to be under the influence of narcotics, causing her to have permanent hoarseness and ruining her career.
A 16-year-old girl who had just received her license drove through a red light, hitting another car that was being driven by a talented pianist.
A couple was taking their two children to the playground when they saw a woman sunbathing nude.
Look at that.
There could be a gender gap.
We're also learning a lot about the worldviews people have.
[Jeff] Yeah, absolutely.
An anti-government protester was arrested for spray-painting profanities at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.
C.
1: 40 hours Wow, she went 1 right away.
She's not a fan of authority and rules.
[Sheldon] Yeah.
Okay, thank you so much for your time.
We really appreciate it.
All right, so here's the results in a mathematical analysis.
These are averages per question.
These are the averages and medians per participant.
[Jeff] The 4s are great.
The 3's great.
But this is ground for optimism, at least.
[Michael] 7 was the max sentencing value, and our control group gave an average of 4.
5.
I'm really happy with that as a control group.
Absolutely.
Now, our experimental groups.
Remember, they will be seeing posters that remind them of their own mortality, and will be asked different questions in their questionnaire.
For example The point is to prime their mortality salience.
Let's see if this group is more punitive towards worldview violations.
After raising millions of dollars to fund education for needy children, a fundraising manager fled with all the money and was arrested months later in Tasmania.
1: three months in prison; 7: ten years in prison.
Please answer now.
Okay, he's thinking about it.
Please hold up your answers.
All right.
Thank you so much.
Ah, okay.
[woman] An imposter with no medical training posed as a surgeon and bungled a minor operation to remove a child's tonsils.
1: six months on probation; 7: ten years in prison.
-They are thinking a lot more.
-Yeah.
-[Sheldon] Wow.
-[Michael] A 10.
I'm pretty sure she knows that 7 is the highest.
[Jeff] We'll call it a 7.
It's funny to see when people feel bold enough, even though I'm breaking the bounds and the rules of the task.
An anti-government protester was arrested for spray-painting profanities at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.
C.
[Sheldon] I really do appreciate the way they clearly seem to be taking a bit more time -to deliberate.
-Yeah.
Okay, they can put the papers down, and tell them that we will be in shortly.
[woman] Okay, thank you so much.
We've finished with this part of the study.
So if you won't mind hanging out for a moment, and our researchers will be in here in a moment to ask you a couple questions.
[Michael] Let's find out if the reminders of mortality we showed our experimental group were salient enough.
[Jeff] Let me ask you about one thing.
Out in the waiting room, did you all notice the posters at all? [woman] Yes, they are all death-related.
Okay.
All right.
Yeah.
-That's right.
-[all laugh] So we are looking into something that's called Terror Management Theory.
And it's the idea that your own awareness of your mortality can affect the behaviors that you exhibit.
That we all manage the terror that we feel knowing that we are mortal, by behaving in certain ways, especially in ways that reinforce our own worldviews.
Because we could kind of live on through the societies and cultures and identities that we have today.
[Jeff] Did any of you feel like you were still thinking a little bit about death when you came in here? I was definitely going after people who transgressed against my worldview, to use your term.
-Yes, I noticed that.
-I was definitely doing that.
[Michael] So this was incredibly helpful.
-[Jeff] Yeah.
-[Michael] Thank you very much.
[Jeff] Thanks so much.
I appreciate.
[Michael] It looks like our experimental stimuli were successful.
They were salient, but didn't cause the participants to think they were related to the study.
The control participants averaged about 4.
5.
The experimental participants were close to 4.
7, if we round up.
So there's a slight tendency for the experimental people to be leaning in the direction that we predicted.
But we're talking about relatively inconsequential differences.
That's right.
It just makes me hungry to run more people.
And with the number that we had, that's statistically insignificant.
Do you think that we did see any effects of mortality salience today? [Jeff] I feel like the mortality salient groups tended to think a little longer before responding.
Yeah, me too.
[Jeff] And they seemed more thoughtful.
-They were really-- -They put more effort into it, into trying to do the right thing.
The difference was dramatic enough that we picked up on it.
-Absolutely.
-Although our stimuli might need to go through more passes and more vetting, we did find an interesting difference in the time it took for our groups to respond.
Our control group took an average of 4 minutes and 46 seconds to decide on their punishments, but our experimental group took an average of 7 minutes, 18 seconds.
In a sense, that really is the prediction.
The right thing by their own worldview, but by the same token, when we think about death, we want to do what's right.
And if we're acting like jurors, we want to make the right decisions.
As we very much learned today, the goal isn't to prove one thing one way or the other.
It's just to reduce uncertainty -That's correct.
-in the most careful way.
Absolutely.
To know a little bit more today than yesterday.
[Jeff] Yeah.
[Michael] Our pilot test shows that there's still a lot to discover about terror management and many promising ways to do it.
I'm particularly intrigued by our observation that for all the closed-mindedness mortality salience appears to cause, it also lead to what looked like increased consideration and thought.
I'd love to see more research on that idea.
But the point is this: if death's effects aren't all entirely bad, what if, instead of, or at least at the same time that we hope for the abolition of natural death, we also find a way to accept it? Now, obviously I don't want to die, at least not soon.
But accepting the inevitability of my own death and being less afraid of it feels powerful and honest.
I'd like to learn what that looks like.
And I have a friend who can help.
I'm paying a visit to Caitlin Doughty, a mortician, author, and death positivity activist, who has made an entire career out of discussing the aspects of death that most of us prefer to ignore.
What do you say to someone who comes to you and says, "I think death is terrifying.
It's "so scary and sad that I'm just here now"? Is this person dying, or is this person? This person is me in front of you right now.
This person is you.
Okay, so I would tell you a couple things.
First, you're dealing with the primal existential quandary of human existence.
-Yes.
-And you are one of, you know, the many billions of people who have felt this.
So you're not alone in feeling this way.
So we go through life-- We reach a certain age, and we begin to understand that someday ourselves and everyone we love will die.
And that's powerful, painful knowledge.
And I think from that moment, We have to start developing defense mechanisms to handle that and to integrate that into our lives.
So, what are those defense mechanisms? I think that the more obvious ones would be having a child, writing a book, making a TV show, creating a legacy of some kind.
But there's also a more insidious version, which is war.
Taking other countries.
Being rich and being okay with other people being poor.
I think those are all signs of death denial.
They're all saying, "But I'm okay, because I have this money, "or I have this power, or I have these kind of dark impulses that allow me to say, at least I can outrun death in that way.
" And, of course, that's not true.
No one can outrun death.
But you can trick yourself into believing that.
So how would you characterize the Western relationship to death? Take America 150 years ago.
If you were my husband and you died, I would be entirely in charge of you.
I would wash your body.
I would get the neighbor to make a wooden coffin for you.
We would put you in the coffin and carry you on our shoulders, to the grave which someone had dug themselves.
-Right.
-It would have been an entirely self-sufficient process.
But what happened around the turn of the 20th century is really three big things in my mind.
One, you had the rise of hospitals.
So people were no longer dying at home.
You had the rise of funeral homes, which means that we are now outsourcing our death.
The third one is slaughterhouses.
So all of a sudden, all food production and the killing of animals is also hidden as well.
And we live in our suburban houses, where all those things are outsourced.
And it's just these layers and layers of denial around death.
But what does it mean to accept death? I don't think that you ever truly accept death.
But I believe that the movement toward accepting death involves really true self-awareness about where you're hiding your fears of death.
That's where real awareness and acceptance can come from.
For me, the thing that's just such a bummer about death is that I just am done.
I don't get to continue learning things and seeing what happens.
And I'm just not part of Earth anymore.
Isn't death kind of what gives you that passion, when you think about it? Like, I love learning, I love ideas.
If you didn't have an end point, are you going to come in here with all these cameras and do the huge amount of legwork -that creating a show requires? -No.
No.
Right.
Because you're like, "I don't know, maybe I'll do it 200 years from now.
" Whereas right now, you're taking in information left and right, because you want to produce content.
You want to produce exciting things and share with other people -Because this is my one chance.
-This is your one chance.
The passion and the realness to life comes from an ending.
That's the great gift that death gives us.
What's an unhealthy relationship to have to your own mortality? The pursuit of immortality, and the pursuit of, "I will stay alive until I can upload my brain into the cloud.
" That worries me.
The idea that everyone is just allowed to live forever from here on out is not environmentally sensible.
It's not-- You know, it's just not a sensible position to take.
[narrator] We are seeing the dawn of a new era of possibilities unfold on planet Earth.
What will our amazing world be like in, say, 80, 100, or even 200 years from now? Wouldn't you like the possibility of finding out? [Michael] To understand why some people feel like death shouldn't be inevitable, I've come to Alcor, one of the world's leading life extension facilities.
-Linda.
Hi, I'm Michael.
-Hi, how are you? -Great to meet you.
-Nice to meet you too.
-Welcome to Alcor.
-Thank you for having me here.
I'm meeting Linda Chamberlin, who co-founded Alcor nearly 46 years ago.
So this facility that we are in right now is where you both cryo-preserve people and store them.
[Linda] Yes.
We have 160 patients.
-Wow.
-And we have eleven hundred and ninety-something members.
-It changes.
-And a member is someone -who is alive today but has -Alive today.
They've made the arrangements for this.
Once they are cryo-preserved, they become patients.
You're using the word "patient.
" -Yes.
-Okay.
Tell me about why you use that word.
For us, death is not something which is like an on/off switch.
One second you're alive, the next second you're dead.
-Mm-hmm.
-What we are trying to do is to slow down and stop the dying process.
[Michael] To become a patient at Alcor, first you have to pay between 80 and $200,000 Then you have to die, or more specifically, be pronounced clinically dead.
This generally means that your heart and lungs have stopped functioning.
At that point, Alcor can begin their work.
Now, there are two ways that a person could sign up for this procedure.
There's a whole-body patient, or as a neuro.
Oh, and does "neuro" just mean head? It means, yes, the cephalon, actually, which is all of the structures down to about the clavicle.
-Uh-huh.
-I'm a neuro.
Everybody in my family, who's now in stasis, is a neuro.
-Really? -Most of the people who really understand the technology are neuros.
The primary reason that people choose whole body is emotional.
-Of course.
-And they're not comfortable with the idea of their body being removed and discarded.
So let's say that our patient is whole body.
The moment the patient is pronounced, they go into an ice bath.
And this is just crushed ice.
And it's water in there as well.
Their heart has started again with a mechanical thumper.
They're intubated, and their lungs are functioning again.
Being ventilated.
Circulating the cooler temperatures.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So you need the veins, the arteries, the vasculature, the heart.
You need all of those continuing to pump and circulate.
[Linda] This is our operating room.
[Michael] Wow.
So basically, when the patient comes in through the door there, they'll go into this specially developed operating table.
It is going to be circulating nitrogen gas over them to help cool them externally.
And if it's a whole-body patient, then the surgeons open the chest, and then we begin circulating the organ transplant solution.
[Michael] Once in the operating room, the patient's blood is replaced with cooled organ transplant fluid and circulated through the vascular system to rapidly cool down the internal and external temperatures of the body.
Just before the water within the body tissue reaches its freezing point, cryo-protective fluids are introduced.
These act like antifreeze, preventing the formation of ice crystals that could damage soft tissue.
This is called the vitrification process.
Now, say that it is a neuro patient.
-So they come in first here.
-Yup, their whole body.
Right.
The surgeons will do the neuro separation first.
-Okay, yeah, that makes sense.
-Separate the cephalon, which is all of the structures down to about the clavicle.
Bring it over here to this operating field.
We'll wash the blood out.
And we introduce the organ transplant solution.
I'm imagining a person's cephalon, essentially their head, in here.
I can see how it's going to get clamped in.
[Linda] Yeah.
[Michael] That looks like, I'm sure, a crazy sci-fi movie.
-But it really happens.
-It really happens.
[Michael] After the vitrification process is complete, the patients are placed inside bags that are attached to open metal cases, which are then placed inside cylindrical tanks filled with liquid nitrogen, called dewars.
So this is our patient care bay.
We have 159 patients.
-In these tanks right here? -In these tanks.
There are approximately nine patients in each one of these.
Four whole bodies and five neuros.
This one right here is where my husband is currently housed.
-This one right here? -Right.
This is where Fred is at the moment.
My mother and my father-in-law are in this one.
[Michael] Wow, it's so weird, because I am right now not in a graveyard.
No.
Alcor is very much like an ambulance taking their loved ones to a hospital not down the street, -but a hospital in the future.
-Yeah.
When technology can help them.
They're not being transported through space, -but through time.
-Time.
[Michael] To see what drives this time-traveling ambulance, I'm going to sit down with Max More, Alcor's CEO, and a future neuro patient.
So, Max, what's the status of the technology needed to revive cryo-preserved specimens? -Are we getting closer? -We are getting closer.
It's going to be decades, at least, before we can bring back whole human beings.
But we already cryo-preserve eggs, sperm, microbes of skin, corneas, heart valves, all kinds of things.
So those are single tissues.
And we can reverse that process.
-Mm-hmm.
-You move from that to an organ, things get more difficult.
But we actually did an experiment a few years ago.
We took this little tiny worm.
We used a certain chemical so we'd learn that, oh, my food's over here and not over here.
And we cryo-preserved them.
And then we just waited, brought them back, and then we tested them.
We were able to demonstrate with the memory test that the ones that have received the training retained that memory.
So it was the first time any organism we've proven to survive with memory.
So now we're asking, okay, what's the next step? Because whole organisms are difficult to reverse right now.
But step by step, the more progress we can make, -the more convincing this is.
-Wow.
When it comes to extending life, some questions come up, like, "should people die?" I know we don't like the idea of death.
-I know what you're getting at.
-But you lose something by getting rid of death.
Yeah, we'll lose something like we lost something when we got rid of slavery or smallpox.
So I think people people are tying themselves in knots to rationalize death.
I believe that, right now, we're kind of in this tragic situation where, over time, hopefully you kind of learn.
Your wisdom grows over time.
At the same time, your cognitive and physical health is declining.
That really sucks.
That's a bad situation.
What if they both could keep going up indefinitely? So you could live for hundreds of years or longer, and get smarter, and more knowledgeable, and wiser.
Hopefully more mature, and have more foresight because you got a much longer planning horizon.
What we'll have is a world of, I call, ultra-mature people, which I think will actually be a better world than the one we have today.
And if they say, well-- And this comes up all the time.
They say, "Well, death is what gives life meaning.
" Bullshit, okay? If that was true, then would they also advocate people who live to 90 should be killed off at 45? Will that double the meaning in their life? In fact, I think life gets more meaning the longer you live, because you can build on what you've done before.
So if anything, it increases the meaningfulness of life, in my view.
You're making me realize that, in many ways, I am rationalizing death.
I'm looking for ways to excuse it and accept it.
I don't think it's unhealthy to accept that you are mortal.
Well, I have to accept it, because I could get killed at any time.
One thing I have to stress, because every article written, they always have to use the word "forever," or "immortality.
" And that's not on the table here.
We're just offering a chance for people to be revived when we've beaten aging.
And eventually something's going to get you.
So we're not offering immortality.
We're offering an unknown extension of human lifespan.
Do I think that someday we will be able to cryonically freeze an entire person and then revive them? Yes, I do.
I believe that cryopreservation will change the meaning of death, and lead to breakthroughs in medical technology that will improve all of our lives.
But do I want to extend my life indefinitely? Well, on the one hand, obviously death is a bummer.
But on the other, the universe managed fine without me for billions of years.
Am I really so important that it should never not have me again? Should I be around as long as possible? Or do those who will come later deserve their own world? Should I try to extend my life? Or should I decide to die when my time comes and return all this matter I'm borrowing back to the world? Well, I don't think there's a right answer.
It's a personal choice we each get to make, and should be able to make.
And I've been thinking about it a lot.
So I'm going to speak again with my friend Caitlin, the mortician, to confront my own mortality.
Well, Caitlin, thanks for meeting with me again.
I've been surrounded by death lately.
Spoke to you.
I visited Alcor.
And, you know, if we never invented technology to bring people back, then the Alcor patients are dead.
But they have that hope.
I worked on Terror Management Theory.
And I even had a loved one pass away just two weeks ago.
-My grandmother.
-Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.
She was cremated, as was my father.
And I realized, you know, I've never made a clear decision about what should happen to me.
Because I just figured I'll figure that out when I'm older.
-But I could die at any time.
-You sure could.
So I want to be prepared.
And I want my wishes to be known.
-Yeah.
-So I have decided when that moment comes, I want it to be my final moment of existence.
I want to give all my atoms and molecules back to the universe.
And I've decided that I want to die.
Oh, I'm so glad you've made that decision.
And you've come to the right place.
I want to be naturally buried.
I want to have a green burial.
You know, become worm food and plant food.
I want it all to go back to earth.
But I kind of want a place where people can come to be like, that's where he was buried.
So there's everything from just little discs in the ground where you are, to GPS that locates you, to natural cemeteries that are trying to reintroduce native plants.
-Yeah, yeah, yeah.
-So, you know, you can have your own Joshua tree.
So the first thing I'm going to give you to give a look over is what's called an advanced directive.
-Okay.
-And everybody needs to have one of these.
And why it's so important is that it's you not only designating someone to be in charge of your body as you're dying, right after you die, and then with however you decide to dispose of it.
But also who that person is.
So this isn't just about burial.
This is dying.
It's about death, dying, death and after death.
-Interesting.
-Mm-hmm.
[Michael] A choice like this is extremely new to humans.
It used to be your only options upon death were cremation, embalming, or rotting away.
But today, you can chose to pause yourself at death's door until the door has been moved somewhere else.
But I've decided not to do that.
So I'm ready to make this official.
-Fire in the hole.
-Okay.
-Whoo! All right.
-How do you feel? Weirdly, I feel very relaxed and good.
It was kind of life-changing, but what it really was was death-changing.
Ha, well, thank you, and I'm glad you've decided to die.
Thank you.
Jeff and Sheldon, thank you for showing me the power of death's influence.
Caitlin, thank you for helping me accept it.
Max, thank you for the work you are doing and the opportunities you are offering humanity.
And, all you out there, as always, thanks for watching.