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 Theoryand 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
staffed by actors,and invited participants
to be a part
of what they were told
was a focus group
about the criminal justice
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,
will first be exposedto reminders of their own
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
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
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.
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 tookfor our groups to respond.Our control group took
an average
of 4 minutes and 46 seconds
to decide on their punishments,
but our experimental grouptook 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.

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