Category Archives: KNOWLEDGE

Fighting the common fate of humans: to better life and beat death

Can technology help us to beat death? Shutterstock/Zwiebackesser

May 1, 2017 6.01am AEST

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  1. Cathal D. O’ConnellCentre Manager, BioFab3D (St Vincent’s Hospital), University of Melbourne

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Cathal D. O’Connell does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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This piece is republished with permission from Millenials Strike Back, the 56th edition of Griffith Review. Selected pieces consist of extracts, or long reads in which Generation Y writers address the issues that define and concern them.


The oldest surviving great work of literature tells the story of a Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, whose historical equivalent may have ruled the city of Uruk some time between 2800 and 2500 BC.

A hero of superhuman strength, Gilgamesh becomes instilled with existential dread after witnessing the death of his friend, and travels the Earth in search of a cure for mortality.

Twice the cure slips through his fingers and he learns the futility of fighting the common fate of man.

Merging with machines

Transhumanism is the idea that we can transcend our biological limits, by merging with machines. The idea was popularised by the renowned technoprophet Ray Kurzweil (now a director of engineering at Google), who came to public attention in the 1990s with a string of astute predictions about technology.

In his 1990 book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press), Kurzweil predicted that a computer would beat the world’s best chess player by the year 2000. It happened in 1997.

He also foresaw the explosive growth of the internet, along with the advent of wearable technology, drone warfare and the automated translation of language. Kurzweil’s most famous prediction is what he calls “the singularity” – the emergence of an artificial super-intelligence, triggering runaway technological growth – which he foresees happening somewhere around 2045.

In some sense, the merger of humans and machines has already begun. Bionic implants, such as the cochlear implant, use electrical impulses orchestrated by computer chips to communicate with the brain, and so restore lost senses.

At St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne, my colleagues are developing other ways to tap into neuronal activity, thereby giving people natural control of a robotic hand.

These cases involve sending simple signals between a piece of hardware and the brain. To truly merge minds and machines, however, we need some way to send thoughts and memories.

In 2011, scientists at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles took the first step towards this when they implanted rats with a computer chip that worked as a kind of external hard drive for the brain.

First the rats learned a particular skill, pulling a sequence of levers to gain a reward. The silicon implant listened in as that new memory was encoded in the brain’s hippocampus region, and recorded the pattern of electrical signals it detected.

Next the rats were induced to forget the skill, by giving them a drug that impaired the hippocampus. The silicon implant then took over, firing a bunch of electrical signals to mimic the pattern it had recorded during training.

Amazingly, the rats remembered the skill – the electrical signals from the chip were essentially replaying the memory, in a crude version of that scene in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves learns (downloads) kung-fu.The Matrix: I know king fu.

Again, the potential roadblock: the brain may be more different from a computer than people such as Kurzweil appreciate. As Nicolas Rougier, a computer scientist at Inria (the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation), argues, the brain itself needs the complex sensory input of the body in order to function properly.

Separate the brain from that input and things start to go awry pretty quickly. Hence sensory deprivation is used as a form of torture. Even if artificial intelligence is achieved, that does not mean our brains will be able to integrate with it.

Whatever happens at the singularity (if it ever occurs), Kurzweil, now aged 68, wants to be around to see it. His Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (Rodale Books, 2004) is a guidebook for extending life in the hope of seeing the longevity revolution. In it he details his dietary practices, and outlines some of the 200 supplements he takes daily.

Failing that, he has a plan B.

Freezing death

The central idea of cryonics is to preserve the body after death in the hope that, one day, future civilisations will have the ability (and the desire) to reanimate the dead.

Both Kurzweil and de Grey, along with about 1,500 others (including, apparently, Britney Spears), are signed up to be cryopreserved by Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.

Offhand, the idea seems crackpot. Even in daily experience, you know that freezing changes stuff: you can tell a strawberry that’s been frozen. Taste, and especially texture, change unmistakably. The problem is that when the strawberry cells freeze, they fill with ice crystals. The ice rips them apart, essentially turning them to mush.

That’s why Alcor don’t freeze you; they turn you to glass.

After you die, your body is drained of blood and replaced with a special cryogenic mixture of antifreeze and preservatives. When cooled, the liquid turns to a glassy state, but without forming dangerous crystals.

You are placed in a giant thermos flask of liquid nitrogen and cooled to -196℃, cold enough to effectively stop biological time. There you can stay without changing, for a year or a century, until science discovers the cure for whatever caused your demise.

“People don’t understand cryonics,” says Alcor president Max More in a YouTube tour of his facility. “They think it’s this strange thing we do to dead people, rather than understanding it really is an extension of emergency medicine.”Alcor president Max More.

The idea may not be as crackpot as it sounds. Similar cryopreservation techniques are already being used to preserve human embryos used in fertility treatments.

“There are people walking around today who have been cryopreserved,” More continues. “They were just embryos at the time.”

One proof of concept, of sorts, was reported by cryogenics expert Greg Fahy of 21st Century Medicine (a privately funded cryonics research lab) in 2009.

Fahy’s team removed a rabbit kidney, vitrified it, and reimplanted into the rabbit as its only working kidney. Amazingly, the rabbit survived, if only for nine days.

More recently, a new technique developed by Fahy enabled the perfect preservation of a rabbit brain though vitrification and storage at -196℃. After rewarming, advanced 3D imaging revealed that the rabbit’s “connectome” – that is, the connections between neurons – was undisturbed.

Unfortunately, the chemicals used for the new technique are toxic, but the work does raise the hope of some future method that may achieve the same degree of preservation with more friendly substances.

That said, preserving structure does not necessarily preserve function. Our thoughts and memories are not just coded in the physical connections between neurons, but also in the strength of those connections – coded somehow in the folding of proteins.

That’s why the most remarkable cryonics work to date may be that performed at Alcor in 2015, when scientists managed to glassify a tiny worm for two weeks, and then return it to life with its memory intact.

Now, while the worm has only 302 neurons, you have more than 100 billion, and while the worm has 5,000 neuron-to-neuron connections you have at least 100 trillion. So there’s some way to go, but there’s certainly hope.

In Australia, a new not-for-profit, Southern Cryonics, is planning to open the first cryonics facility in the Southern Hemisphere.

“Eventually, medicine will be able to keep people healthy indefinitely,” Southern Cryonics spokesperson and secretary Matt Fisher tells me in a phonecall.

“I want to see the other side of that transition. I want to live in a world where everyone can be healthy for as long as they want. And I want everyone I know and care about to have that opportunity as well.”

To get Southern Cryonics off the ground, ten founding members have each put in A$50,000, entitling them to a cryonic preservation for themselves or a person of their choice. Given that the company is not-for-profit, Fisher has no financial incentive to campaign for it. He simply believes in it.

“I’d really like to see [cryonic preservation] become the most common choice for internment across Australia,” he says.

Fisher admits there is no proof yet that cryopreservation works. The question is not about what is possible today, he says. It’s about what may be possible in the future.

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Does your inner voice tell you that you’re not good enough, smart enough or thin enough? Do you worry that you’re failing as a mom, wife, sister or daughter? Does it sometimes feel as if everyone else excels while you barely get by? Rachel Hollis, lifestyle guru and author of the Girl book series, believes you may be falling for popular negative messages. The first step in dismantling these lies is to recognize how they prevent you from becoming the best version of yourself. Hollis holds a mirror to her life to help other women cope with theirs. She courageously reveals various personal adversities and shares how she overcame difficulties to succeed. Women will identify with Hollis’s stress from becoming a new mom, feeling pressure to be perfect and struggling to persevere. Unfortunately, Hollis’s girl-power overtones seem media-derived and somewhat driven. Yet, she is honest and open, including about sharing her faith-based beliefs. She offers a – mostly – refreshing approach to female empowerment. Her guidance will appeal especially to women seeking a mentor and confidant with Christian roots.

Take-Aways

  • You are in charge of your own happiness and have control over how you live your life.
  • The lies that society perpetuates about the right way to be a woman, wife and mother make many women feel like failures.
  • Insisting on perfection in yourself leads to feeling overwhelmed and giving up.
  • Make only thoughtful promises to yourself and then keep them, or your personal pledges will lose all meaning.
  • Workaholics must strive to find peace, rest and balance.
  • If alcohol becomes a crutch, seek better coping mechanisms such as prayer, exercise, therapy or spending time with friends.
  • People will treat you as poorly as you let them. Love and respect yourself, and demand the same from others.
  • Moms should give themselves a break, quit worrying about what others think and congratulate themselves for the things they do well.
  • It may take time, but you can find growth and purpose after tragedy.
  • “When it comes to your dreams, no is not an answer.”  

Summary

“If You’re Unhappy, That’s on You” 

Rachel Hollis, founder of the lifestyle website TheChicSite.com and best-selling Girl book series, makes a living giving advice to women. Yet she calls herself a nerd and says out front that she’s not a perfect wife, mother, friend or Christian. She starts every day striving to be as worthy as possible. Some days she meets her goal, while other days it’s cereal for dinner. Aim for perfection, but understand that it’s unattainable. Accepting nothing but perfection in yourself can lead to feeling overwhelmed and giving up.

“You and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”

Live life to the fullest by taking responsibility for your own happiness. Resist the temptation to compare yourself with others, especially those who seem to live the life you hope to attain. Associate with optimistic, positive people, and partake in activities that make you feel good. Do the things that bring you joy and uplift your spirit – rather than acting out of a feeling of obligation.

“Every single aspect of our persona, no matter how long we’ve rocked it, is a choice we make every day.” 

Women often focus on what they haven’t achieved, so every birthday can serve as a harsh reminder of failed goals. One common lie women believe is that they should focus on the absence of something rather than on their accomplishments. They berate themselves when they fail to meet self-imposed deadlines. Their inner dialogue is often a diatribe of emotional abuse that becomes so commonplace that it barely registers. Remember that “God has perfect timing.” If you haven’t achieved a goal, you may not be ready or maybe you need to revise it. Today’s experience serves a purpose; it prepares you for what’s next.

Quitters Never Win

Do you break promises to yourself? When you break personal pledges, they lose all meaning. Your subconscious learns that you’ll flake out, and you repeat the pattern of quitting when the going gets tough. Make a conscious choice to keep the promises you make to yourself. When Hollis suffered vertigo – dizziness upon standing – she stopped drinking her beloved diet soda. She got through the first month and the following four years without it and realized she could keep commitments to herself. 

“I don’t believe that everything happens for a specific reason, but I do believe it’s possible to find purpose – even in the absence of explanation.”

Break large goals into smaller, more manageable steps. Hollis trained for a half-marathon by committing to run one mile a few days each week. Choose your promises and commitments thoughtfully. Agree only to those you have the will to achieve. Don’t fool yourself into believing you will follow through on something when it’s more likely that you won’t. Being less than honest about your intentions causes you to fall into unproductive behavior patterns.

Life’s Little Crutches

Hollis is a self-proclaimed workaholic. She loves her job, and most days it’s validating and rewarding. As a child, she received praise and attention for hard work and accomplishment. As an adult, she continued the pattern of proving her worth through work. At home, the nonstop chaos of children, housework and crazy schedules exasperates her. 

“Nobody…gets to tell you how big your dreams can be.”

At age 19, Hollis suffered her first bout of Bell’s palsy, a partial paralysis of the face. She recovered, but she relapsed a few years later while traveling through Europe with her husband. In her early 30s, she began to experience vertigo. She took medicine for its symptoms, but the vertigo never went away completely. A homeopathic doctor diagnosed the problem as a response to stress. As with Bell’s palsy, Hollis’s body was signaling her to slow down and take care of herself.

“It’s highly possible that by not being where you thought you should be, you will end up exactly where you’re meant to go.”

Hollis made serious life changes. She reduced her work hours, spent more time playing with her kids, cut back on caffeine, started volunteering and took a hip-hop dance class. She heeded her body’s message to rest, renew and enjoy life instead of working her way through it. Hollis wasn’t a drinker until she had kids, and then “wine became my best friend.” Pouring herself a glass as she prepared dinner became part of her routine. With each sip, she felt more relaxed and able to cope. Soon, she was drinking two or more glasses of wine every night. One day, she caught herself thinking, “I need a drink.” 

“If you’re not able to value yourself, no one else will either.”

The word “need” drew her up short, and she quit cold turkey – that is, until she and her husband, Dave, became foster parents. It was a chaotic, stressful and sad time, and vodka became their new best friend. Hollis realized she was using alcohol as a form of self-medication. She taught herself better coping mechanisms, such as praying, running, spending time with friends and going to therapy. She learned that “you don’t need a crutch if you are strong enough to walk on your own.”

Gossip Girls

Women often succumb to the temptation to judge, compete and gossip. Tearing another person apart doesn’t make you more whole; it makes you less. The words you utter are powerful, even when spoken behind someone’s back.

“Because I didn’t feel I was succeeding at being a mom – the one thing I should innately know how to do – I was positive I was a failure.”

On a flight to Chicago, Hollis saw a couple struggling with their misbehaving four-year-old son. He screamed, cried, yelled and wouldn’t sit still, disturbing every other passenger. Hollis caught herself judging the mom, until a little voice in her head said, “Rachel, you don’t know their story.”

“Can we stop being so hard on ourselves and instead focus on the good work we are doing, the results of which are evident in the awesome little people we’re raising?”

Judging and competing with other women keeps you from forming strong connections and deep friendships. Catch yourself when you make negative assumptions or quick judgments. Look for something positive instead. Your personal experiences and biases color your views. You may think you have everything figured out, but what works for you won’t necessarily work for other people. Choose to love people despite their differences, keep an open mind and focus on what’s in their hearts.

An Unloved Story

Rachel, then 19, fell in love with Dave the first time she saw him. It took Dave a year and a breakup to fall in love with Rachel. Dave was professional and older, and he had more experience of the world than Rachel, but he was naive about love and relationships. Rachel assumed Dave was her boyfriend after they spent one night together, but he was reticent. Rachel wasn’t a priority in his life, and he treated her poorly. Rachel allowed this behavior because she thought she loved him, and she envisioned that she’d spend their lives together. But the more she tried to hold Dave, the more slippery he became. He broke up with her the day before Thanksgiving.

“See [me as] someone who kept walking in faith because she understood that God’s plan for her life was magnificent – even if it was never easy.”

Rachel spent a miserable Thanksgiving with her family. On her two-hour drive home, she received a voicemail from Dave that sparked an epiphany. She’d had enough. That night she told him, “I am done with this. I am done with you.” The next morning, Dave knocked on her door. He realized how much he loved her. He became her husband, best friend and father to their children. Rachel learned that people will treat you as poorly as you let them. Choose to love and respect yourself and demand that same love and respect from others.


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Wash Your Face

Rejection is tough, and hearing no is deflating. Getting a no may be a sign you need to pause, evaluate, change course or adjust your strategy. For example, several publishers turned down Hollis’s first book, Party Girl. So she self-published it and sold more than 100,000 copies. You perceive and interpret everything that happens to you through the lens of your past experiences, but you have the power to adjust the lens. At your worst moments, remember that events don’t happen “to you,” but “for you.” Even the most horrible experiences can be learning opportunities. Shedding light on common fears takes away their power. Many people remember that discouragement from an authority figure killed their dreams. Perhaps a parent’s protective impulse kept you from trying out for a team or a boss said you were a bad fit for a job.

“There isn’t one right way to be a woman. There isn’t one right way to be a daughter, friend, boss, wife [or] mother.”

In these and other cases, your internal voice prevented you from fulfilling your dreams. Anything worthwhile feels hard, because it is hard. So, let your feelings out, and then “dry your eyes, wash your face and keep on going.” People might set their dreams aside when something traumatic occurs. Don’t allow an illness or divorce to give you “permission to quit.” Use the strength you gained weathering life’s storms to power you toward your goal.

The Mommy Myth 

You may not be one of those women who loves being pregnant. Hollis certainly wasn’t. She experienced morning sickness all day, gained weight and worried about her unborn child. Once she had her son, Jackson, she felt terribly inadequate as a new mom. She thought she was doing something wrong, so she turned her focus on keeping his outfits clean and the house spotless. When her second son, Sawyer, arrived, Hollis suffered postpartum depression. Her feelings of failure as a mom kept her from embracing motherhood. 

“Every single part of your life – your gratitude, the way you manage stress, how kind you are to others, how happy you are – can be changed by a shift in your perception.”

New moms should concentrate on just two things: First, “take care of the baby,” and second, “take care of yourself.” Everything else can wait. Hollis believes God meant for her and her babies to be together. She says new moms will make mistakes, but “you can’t fail a job you were created to do.” Loving your child and trying to do what’s best is enough. If you struggle with your new role, seek out other new moms. Don’t compare your life to the perfect images you see on social media. Find someone with whom you can talk candidly about your feelings. When your kids are in school, you’ll have different schedules and paperwork to manage in addition to your own work. Even the most organized mom will forget a permission slip or costume or carpool time. It always seems the other moms have everything under control. Make peace with imperfection, and do your best.

Trauma with a Capital T 

Just before Hollis turned 15, her brother Ryan took his own life. He had been her handsome, funny, kind, older brother – her playmate and protector. He was also schizophrenic, depressed and obsessive-compulsive. One day, in a distressed mental state, he shot himself. His younger sister found his body. Hollis didn’t think she would ever come out the other end of her shock and grief. Eventually, her will to live life became more powerful than the trauma. She felt guilty when she realized that her brother’s suicide had a silver lining. She thought, “You can do anything. Think of what you’ve lived through already!” She refused to let her brother’s suicide become the centerpiece of her life. While you can’t ignore pain, you can survive great loss by embracing life as a gift to the memory of the person who died. It may take years, but you can find purpose even in great tragedy.

Adoption Nightmare

When Hollis was expecting her third son, she and Dave decided to adopt a little girl. They believed their Christian faith called on them to care for orphans. They successfully navigated the paperwork and home visits from an Ethiopian adoption program. After the couple had been waiting two years, the program ended American adoptions, despite Ethiopia’s ongoing orphan crisis. The couple entered the foster-to-adopt system in Los Angeles. They took in a baby with medical challenges and her two-year-old sister. When the girls transitioned out three months later, Rachel mourned them. A month later, their social worker asked if they wanted three-day-old twin girls, with an understanding that this placement would lead to adoption. Four days later, the police appeared at 10 p.m. An anonymous source had filed a complaint on the child abuse hotline about their previous foster care placement.

“You are in charge of your own life, sister, and there’s not one thing in it that you’re not allowing to be there.”

An exhaustive investigation ensued. Rachel learned that anonymous abuse reports are common in the foster care system. While she and Dave struggled with the two babies and while their sons adjusted to the new family dynamic, they underwent intense scrutiny leading to an inconclusive verdict. Yet things only got worse. The twins’ biological father wanted the girls back; they were never, in fact, up for adoption. Dave and Rachel felt alone in their astonishment and wondered if anyone else could understand their experience. Still, Dave encouraged Rachel to consider an independent adoption. She turned to her faith to help her persevere, even though that faith had been sorely tested. Eventually, their daughter came to them. Their marriage was stronger, and they learned that with faith in God, they could survive anything as a couple.

About the Author

Chic Media founder and CEO Rachel Hollis is a speaker and the best-selling author of the Girl book series, which includes Party Girl; Sweet Girl;Smart GirlParty Girl’s First Date; and Girl, Stop Apologizing.

This document is restricted to the personal use of Hasan Alnorani (alnoranihasan@gmail.com)

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