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Saturday, 31 May 2014

Rejected Post on the Pro-Aging Trance

A while back my university magazine approached me to write a scientific article for a well-educated but non-specialist audience i.e. my fellow students.

After submitting it multiple times and trying to get in touch, I abandoned the whole thing (they didn't seem to be interested; or bother letting me know that they weren't interested anymore). I've just found the Word file and thought - hey, might as well share this with the world. Please take into consideration that some of the circumstantial aspects of this piece are now out of date.

Do you believe in aging?

 

You’re lying down on a soft, lush green lawn, staring at the crisp blue sky, watching clouds fly by. Could it be that you could fly beside them one day? This isn’t the thought of someone who has ever been on a plane. This is the thought of the millions of people before us who didn’t. Imagine being them - it makes perfect sense, after all, that humans don’t have wings and can’t fly. Full stop. Yet people fly, they fly everyday beneath the clouds, above the clouds, and beside the clouds. A small fraction of people made that possible. It could be argued that without the wild belief that somehow a wingless human might find themselves beside clouds, the achievement would never have happened. Discoveries and research are driven by people’s vehement belief that there is more around us that we don’t know of yet. So how come certain topics more than others stir up disbelief among many, despite the experiences of the past, and a base of crude empirical evidence?

 

London, 16th century - the average life expectancy is 30 years. The same place in the 21st century sees the average life expectancy rocket to an average of 80 years and rising. Past experiences show that it is possible for life expectancy to triple in the space of 500 years, with people not really making a big deal out of it. Improving sanitation and healthcare may seem like easy things to have done in the past which resulted in increased lifespan. Yet nothing is ever easy before it is done, much like creating an aircraft is only commonplace once the very first one has safely taken off and landed. The idea that it is possible to reverse the process which results in the most deaths worldwide – aging – is seen as an untouchable fantasy, and has been all along. Wasn’t flying an untouchable fantasy?

The more big leaps are turned into small steps, the more fathomable such breakthroughs become. Stopping aging has a very high rating of impossible indeed, yet stopping the specific biological processes which may cause aging (mutant mitochondria and death-resistant cells among others) has a much better rating, close to very much possible. The number of people who believe aging will eventually be reversed at some point in the future is much higher than the number of people who believe aging will be reversed closer to our time. Will humans meet alien life? Why not? Will humans meet alien life this year? A resounding no might be the answer. Imagine for a minute that a group of people believe they will meet alien life within the year, despite there being no chance of it happening. Aren’t their efforts going to significantly increase that chance? Aren’t their actions the sole variable that determines just how likely such breakthrough would be? If no one at all even considered creating an airplane, how would it even be possible for one to have been made?

I am currently taking part in a project about the so-called pro-aging trance.  It’s a bit like looking back on the people who thought flying was never going to happen, and trying to find out the reasons behind it. Why did some people believe and others disbelieve? Could those answers apply to people today and their beliefs about aging? Although aging is biological in nature, studying people’s beliefs and profiling their more general outlook requires a psychological approach. Faced with the apparent certainty of death, people seek reassurance which can soften the thought of something that is negative in essence. There is a continuum of perceived control over one’s life, which runs between an internal locus of control and an external locus of control. People who find themselves at the end of the spectrum on the side of the internal locus of control tend to attribute life’s events to their own actions, therefore blaming themselves more for how things turn out, and even how the wider world turns out. At the other end, people with an external locus of control see the world as greater than them, and are likely to explain things in terms of luck and other forces out of their reach.

The pro-aging trance is a term used to describe the state of mind associated with accepting aging as an inevitable constant, therefore going along with the prospect of aging and death. Strictly speaking, aging is an inevitable constant, but not any more than us being wingless is. Many inevitable constants of nature have had their effects nullified by our intelligent actions.

It is common to assume something as a fact of life when it has been the case for a very long time, unchanged. Think of the monkey experiment where several caged monkeys would be faced with a hanging banana, yet each time they tried to reach for it, all monkeys were sprayed with water (which they hate). The monkeys were replaced one by one with other monkeys unaware of the water spraying. When the new monkeys tried to reach for the banana, the other monkeys would stop them in a quite violent fashion. When faced with the unavoidable, what can you do but accept it? People have been accepting aging and death since our beginning. The premise behind the pro-aging trance is that people with an internal locus of control are likely to believe in reversing aging, and either oppose it on moral grounds, or attempt to join efforts to achieve it. On the other hand, people with an external locus of control would reject the idea altogether, or deem it so far-fetched that it deserves no attention from the people alive today. The pro-aging trance project aims to discover if these associations stand.

The project was started by Kelsey Moody and his team at SUNY Plattsburgh, and is being contributed to by Stuart Calimport of Aston University, Kemal Akman of Munich University, Barry Bentley of Cambridge University and myself. The initial motivation behind starting this project was, in Kelsey’s words:

“Like many immortalists, I couldn't figure out why the heck everyone in the world wasn't getting involved with age-related research.  Being a psychology student at the time (I completed a major in psychology before declaring a second in biochemistry), I had the training necessary to study the PAT.  I recruited three undergraduates to work for me and we completed a rather comprehensive literature review on the topic, ultimately implicating TMT (Terror Management Theory) and LH (Learned Helplessness) as major players in what we call the PAT.”

TMT states that most human behaviour is caused by the fear of death, while learned helplessness is a state of a person or an animal that has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity arises for it to help itself. This is caused by a constant avoiding of an unpleasant circumstance to which that person or animal has been subjected.


The results of this project will help understand people’s attitudes towards rejuvenation biotechnologies, and that understanding is needed to bring together the resources to advance the future of anti-aging research into the present.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting current parallel to the debate about whether or not humans can do anything about aging, and whether they can do anything soon, is the debate that is going on around self driving cars. Have a look at any technology blog and there are a load of people adamantly denying that such things as Google's cars will ever work in the 'real world'. I don't think such people will change their minds until 5 years after self driving cars have been driving all over England.

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