Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Immortal Brain

I just learned of the untimely passing of one of my classmates. Rhonda and I were neighbors, living about a half mile apart in rural Iowa in the early 70s. We attended a small consolidated county school in the town of Minburn, and in the summer we made spending money walking beans (note 1) for farmers, along with other stuff that 5th grade farm kids do. After a couple short years, my family moved, time went by, and then one day decades later Rhonda and I reconnected through email and ultimately, Facebook.

And it was through Facebook that I learned of Rhonda's passing--after the fact. Friends and family have been writing tributes to Rhonda on her Facebook wall. I joined in, tagging Rhonda in my comments. I do not expect her to see my comments, but I do want to be a source of comfort for Rhonda's closest family and friends. She leaves behind a grandmother, parents, siblings, a son, and a grandson.

All of Rhonda's posts, including her last one about the joys of grandmotherhood, still exist. It's somewhat chilling to think about the fact that a collection of personal expressions shared in discrete moments of time are now preserved and accessible--just like the memories in my brain.

The question I am pondering now is whether our memories are accessible after our death. I am not referring the the stuff we wrote when we were alive. I am talking about the stuff stored in our brains that enables us to remember childhood friends and experiences years later.

Related questions:

  • If memories are accessible after clinical death, under what conditions, and for how long? 
  • Can a human be frozen and brought back to life? Or is this just a fantasy?
  • If so, would that person's memories still reside and be accessible in his or her thawed-out brain?
  • If not, what happens to the memories once implanted in those brain cells? Where do they go?

"Despite the fact that no human placed in a cryonic suspension has yet been revived, some living organisms can be, and have been, brought back from a dead or near-dead state. CPR and Defibrillators can bring accident and heart attack victims back from the dead daily.  
"Neurosurgeons often cool patients’ bodies so they can operate on aneurysms without damaging or rupturing the nearby blood vessels. Human embryos that are frozen in fertility clinics, defrosted and implanted in a mother’s uterus grow into perfectly normal human beings. Some frogs and other amphibians have a protein manufactured by their cells that act as a natural antifreeze which can protect them if they’re frozen completely solid. 
"Cryobiologists are hopeful that nanotechnology will make revival possible someday. Nanotechnology can use microscopic machines to manipulate single atoms to build or repair virtually anything, including human cells and tissues. They hope one day, nanotechnology will repair not only the cellular damage caused by the freezing process, but also the damage caused by aging and disease. 
"Some cryobiologists have predicted that the first cryonic revival might occur as early as year 2045."

I heard an extraordinary story on NPR (note 2) about Anna Bågenholm, a woman who cheated death after a skiing accident in Norway. The 29-year-old was clinically dead for three hours until doctors thawed out her frozen body and brought her back to life. Anna had been skiing in Norway when she crashed head-first into a river. She became wedged under the ice and struggled to breathe through an air pocket for 40 minutes. It was another 40 minutes before she was pulled out. By then she was clinically dead, completely without consciousness, no pulse, no breathing, and she had a core temperature which went down to 13.7 C (56.7 F). They performed CPR and flew her to Tromso Hospital. There, they immediately connected her to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, which is the same machine that you use for open heart surgery where you take the blood out of the body, you warm it up and you put it back into the body. So actually what they did was simply to slowly warm her back up. Her heart started beating again, and she was revived. After weeks of intensive care and months of rehabilitation, the only reminder of Anna Bågenholm's ordeal is a tingling in her hands. All of her memories survived.

Speaking of NPR, I heard a story on NPR's Fresh Air about Ted Williams (note 3), and learned that The Kid's body has been frozen. Actually, his head was frozen, and then they decided to go on ahead and freeze the rest, because, if future scientists can figure out the technical details of thawing out a head, then hooking that head back onto its original body should be a relative cakewalk, right? And in a show of unity, Ted's son took the big sleep, too, opting to be cryogenically frozen just before death, in hopes of being revived and reunited with his Dad at some future time.

We humans are biologically pre-disposed to fight for life, and yet morbidly aware of our mortality. It may well be that our DNA governs WHY we remember, while the cells of our brain handle the HOW. This leads me back to my original and unanswered question: are memories accessible after death? If so, under what conditions, and for how long? And perhaps a more troubling extension of that question is this:

What is the meaning of death if the contents of a brain can be preserved and accessed indefinitely?


(1) What the heck is "walking beans"? That is when you stroll through the rows of a 80-acre soy bean field with a hoe, removing all the volunteer corn from last year's crop, as well as all the weeds that might choke a bean.

(2) What's the story about the skiing surgeon's miraculous recovery? It's all HERE

(3) Ted Williams' body is frozen? Read more in the new book, The Kid : The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, by Ben Bradlee, Jr.

At long last, the epic biography Ted Williams deserves--and that his fans have been waiting for. 

Williams was the best hitter in baseball history. His batting average of .406 in 1941 has not been topped since, and no player who has hit more than 500 home runs has a higher career batting average. Those totals would have been even higher if Williams had not left baseball for nearly five years in the prime of his career to serve as a Marine pilot in WWII and Korea. He hit home runs farther than any player before him--and traveled a long way himself, as Ben Bradlee, Jr.'s grand biography reveals. Born in 1918 in San Diego, Ted would spend most of his life disguising his Mexican heritage. During his 22 years with the Boston Red Sox, Williams electrified crowds across America--and shocked them, too: His notorious clashes with the press and fans threatened his reputation. Yet while he was a God in the batter's box, he was profoundly human once he stepped away from the plate. His ferocity came to define his troubled domestic life. While baseball might have been straightforward for Ted Williams, life was not. 

THE KID is biography of the highest literary order, a thrilling and honest account of a legend in all his glory and human complexity. In his final at-bat, Williams hit a home run. Bradlee's marvelous book clears the fences, too.