Shades of Zarathustra: The New York Times maps dying woman whose brain may live on

Last weekend, a giant New York Times story came out that combined elements of "The Matrix" and “That Hideous Strength” (the C.S. Lewis classic) with a dollop of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Oregon woman who ended her life last year rather than suffer the final months of a brain cancer known as a glioblastoma. GetReligion covered the media circus about this last November, which involved Brittany's media campaign to serve as a poster child for euthanasia.

This time, we have a story again about a 20-something woman with the same kind of brain cancer who chose to preserve her brain. She died in early 2013.

Only now is the Times revealing how it followed this woman about in her final months as she explored the use of her brain for a futurist fantasy where even science fiction writers rarely tread. Although the science involved spans the next few centuries, what the woman wanted is as old as Adam and Eve: To live forever.

In the moments just before Kim Suozzi died of cancer at age 23, it fell to her boyfriend, Josh Schisler, to follow through with the plan to freeze her brain.
As her pulse monitor sounded its alarm and her breath grew ragged, he fumbled for his phone. Fighting the emotion that threatened to paralyze him, he alerted the cryonics team waiting nearby and called the hospice nurses to come pronounce her dead. Any delay would jeopardize the chance to maybe, someday, resurrect her mind.
It was impossible to know on that cloudless Arizona morning in January 2013 which fragments of Kim’s identity might survive, if any. Would she remember their first, fumbling kiss in his dorm room five years earlier? Their private jokes and dumb arguments? The seizure, the surgery, the fancy neuroscience fellowship she had to turn down?...They knew how strange it sounded, the hope that Kim’s brain could be preserved in subzero storage so that decades or centuries from now, if science advanced, her billions of interconnected neurons could be scanned, analyzed and converted into computer code that mimicked how they once worked.

Although this 7,259-word story is crammed with technological data that only a science writer can follow (albeit the reporter made huge efforts to explain brain chemistry to neophytes), it’s full of debates that are ethical and theological in nature.

Big questions: Is there an appointed time in which we must die? Is there any good to keeping one’s brain going even if your body fails? If science figures out a way to "wake up" Suozzi’s brain centuries from now to be attached to a healthy body, how would her 23-year-old consciousness react to life in the 22nd or 23rd century? If her brain somehow manages to be preserved, where is her spirit and soul in the meantime?

In an accompanying 15-minute video, we see books like Ray Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines” and Susan Blackmore’s “Consciousness: An Introduction” displayed but neither there nor in the story do we get a hint of any belief in the hereafter, much less God. The article continues:

Mr. Kurzweil and others who call themselves transhumanists have argued that exponential increases in computing power will generate an assortment of new technologies that will enable us to transcend our bodies and upload our minds onto a computer. He envisions an inflection point that some call the “Singularity,” a singular moment when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence.
Before Josh and Kim reached their 50s, according to Mr. Kurzweil, microscopic devices known as nanorobots inserted in the bloodstream would be able to scan brains and wirelessly upload their information.
In the event of a sudden death, you could be rebooted from your last backup. Enhancements for memory, intelligence and empathy would be available, as would the option to merge with other minds, a possibility, the couple recalled, that prompted Josh to imagine plugging into the brain of Kim’s notoriously crotchety cat, Mikey.

You can almost hear the opening chords from Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra here.

For those of you under 50, the 1968 movie that this classical work accompanies is “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which is about a super-intelligent computer run amok and the coming of age of celestial man.

As for Suozzi, she is identified near the beginning of the story as “an agnostic science geek” and that’s all we hear of the spiritual implications of her decision. Were she a member of any faith that believes in a better life to come, would she have fought so tenaciously to have her brain preserved? Or is it because she has no faith that she puts her trust in humankind’s ability to engineer a solution to the problem of dying too young? Ghosts, ghosts and more ghosts.

The article notes that scientists have not been able to preserve brain tissue larger than a sesame seed, so the possibility of preserving an entire brain, much less all the billions of connections a typical brain has, is many decades, if not a century away.

And any science fiction geek knows the history of what happens when humans wish "to merge with other minds," as the article puts it. Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “Childhood’s End” tells of the monstrous Overmind that dominates our galaxy. Or there’s the disgusting It; an enormous brain that rules over the planet Camazotz in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”

The mind boggles at the number of philosophical alleyways one can travel down with the idea of uploading the contents of your brain onto a computer disk. I know the article is extremely long as it is. But it would have been such a treat had the reporter been able to do an extra sidebar (there is already one sidebar and a video) on the ethical and moral sides to all this. There are many to choose from.

The small details astonish, such what happens when a person wills their body to be part of a collection of frozen brains at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz. Suozzi gave up food and water during the two weeks before her passing to try to speed things up. Right after death, she was decapitated. Her body was whisked away, her head was separated from her body and frozen at sub-zero temps, hopefully to resurrect at a later date in a better form. There's so much more that makes this story a fascinating read.

Do read the comments below this piece as some of those writers do bring up the ethics of such an experiment. Is this young woman, now dead two years, brave and a pioneer? Or is she in search of the kind of immortality that got quashed in the Garden of Eden?

When reporting on such issues, shouldn't a reporter at least raise these questions and explore the views of people who are trying to provide answers?

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