Cellular Memories and Bad Blood

I am taking part in a radio interview for BBC Southern Counties Radio’s Brighton breakfast show hosted by Gordon Astley on Sept 10th at around 10am (assuming the world does not come to an end when they switch on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland).

They want a scientific opinion on the reports from transplant patients who think that they have taken on personality characteristics from the donor following the operation. On the show will be Ian and Lynda Gammons who I interviewed for my book. In 2005, Ian had kidney failure and by chance, his wife, Lynda was found to be a compatible match for organ transplantation. About 6 months after the operation, Ian started to notice a change in his attitudes towards shopping, cooking and working in the garden. All the activities his wife enjoyed but that he could not abide. However, one day during a shopping trip with Lynda he suddenly exclaimed that he was really enjoying himself. Since then Ian has taken up his wife’s interests with enthusiasm. He reports that they have a telepathic connection and even share dreams.

Around 1 in 3 transplant patients believe that they have taken on characteristics of the organ’s donor or at least think that they have changed personality in some significant way. Interestingly, such reports are more common among those that have received an organ from a deceased rather than living donor such as in the case of the Gammons.

The first widely publicized report of such organ memory was the former dancer Claire Sylvia who received the heart and lungs from a young man. Following the transplant she developed a taste for beer, chicken nuggets and an attraction to short blond women. The donor’s girlfriend had been short and blond. He liked beer and chicken McNuggets were found in his coat pocket at the scene of the fatal road traffic accident.

How are we to understand such common reports? One pseudoscience theory is that of cellular memory whereby tissue and organs store information about the individual that can then integrate with the host if transplanted. However, psychological states such preferences and memories are encoded in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus and these brain areas cannot be transplanted. Nor is there any reputable evidence for storage of mental states outside of brain tissue. Organs are indeed connected to the brain via nerves but it is a totally different type of nerve system to that of the cortical neuronal networks of the brain that generate the mind.

Rather, I think that a more likely explanation is the longstanding supersense belief that others have an essence of identity that can be incorporated by contact. Certainly this is what Swedish researcher Margareta Sanner has found in her interviews with patients and the general public. Not only do we believe we can absorb the vitality of others by intimate connection, we also believe we can absorb some by their memories and personality. And what could be more intimate that sharing a physical connection with another through the incorporation of part of their body into our own.

This is why one of the greatest concerns for potential organ recipients is the loss of one’s own identity. In 1999, a 16-year-old girl dying from heart failure was forcibly given a heart transplant because she had refused the life-saving operation. She was so concerned that she would lose her identity with some else’s heart insider her, that she preferred certain death.

It does not have to be an organ. My grad student Arno just translated this article from a Dutch paper that reports a recent situation where a Serb was holidaying in Croatia and learned that the country was suffering from a severe lack of blood donated for operation. Having donated blood for years the man turned up at the hospital and offered to make a donation. This was gratefully accepted until they discovered that he was a Serb. When asked why he was turned away, the hospital explained that patients would not accept a transfusion of Serbian blood. It was bad blood.

This reminds me of a number of recent scandals in the US and UK where families where not happy about their loved one’s organs going to recipients from a different race. When a Newcastle Hospital accepted an organ donation on the condition it went only to a white recipient, UK legislation was enacted in 2000 to stop families dictating who should receive donations.

It is not only the recipients of organs who believe that they take on the personality of the donor, so do the relatives who think that the deceased lives on in a new body! No wonder the UK transplant coordination centre is not keen to discuss this problem as such beliefs could hamper their program to recruit more donors.

I am not sure how I would react to someone else’s organs inside me. On an intellectual level I know that organs are just component parts that serve a function but to be honest, I think I too would have to fight hard not to believe that I had part of someone else living on inside of me. It’s only natural.  

30 Comments

Filed under Essentialism, Radio, supernatural

30 responses to “Cellular Memories and Bad Blood

  1. Katie

    The case of Claire Sylvia doesn’t impress me at all as being supernatural – not only are beer, mcnuggets, and short blond women definitely tasty, they are best when all together.

    I’m always glad to read things like this that debunk these myths that encourage people to feel ‘special’. I’m sure they are developed innocently enough by those who believe them, but to me it somehow implies that natural human relationships and connections are somehow not legitimate – or ‘magical’ enough.

    Though certainly the Gammon case sounds like a pretty safe and innocent superstition.

  2. brucehood

    Gosh what a combination Katie!

    Joking aside… this issue is really quite important as people have some real emotive problems when it comes to consenting to organ donation. The UK has one of the lowest compliance rates in Europe and I am sure that these beliefs are part of the problem.

    Also, the recent Bristol Children’s hospital scandal where biopsy samples were retained without consent showed that relatives were aghast that any part of the body had not been buried. Many of these samples were simply slivers of tissue.

    So it is a really important concern about how we regard the individual as embodied in tissue.

    These are difficult issues and I hope I have not offended anyone who has suffered a loss. But they are absolutely fascinating in terms of how we think about the relationship of mind to body.
    bruce

  3. Lynda Gammons

    In response to Katies comments, her use of the word ‘superstition’ to describe our experiences; after Ian received one of my kidneys, is to put it bluntly – perverse. We have been together for 36 years – I know Ian and Ian knows me. Ian is a different person – a much healthier person after the transplant, but different in some of his likes, preferences and abilities. I know he is different, he knows that he is different – end of story. To face the end of life and then be given it back again is a life changing event – Ian does have some of my loves, he did not go looking for them, they found him!!

  4. brucehood

    Dear Lynda,
    Unfortunately the word “superstition” has negative connotations and suggests delusional thinking. Your experiences are very real and I know you and Ian to both be sincere individuals. I also thought the radio host was being mischievous this morning with some of his questions to raise a laugh.

    (I also hope I did not come across as a scientist ridiculing such reports because the fact is that many patients experience strange changes in personality and preferences.)

    Currently there is no scientific natural model to account for this – hence it is supernatural (going beyond the realms of our scientific understanding) so I am interested in where this comes from.

    Katie has heard me talk about how supernatural thinking is common in everyday thought so I guess she meant it this context rather than a slur on your experience.

    There again, I am sure she can speak for herself.

    Best,

    Bruce

  5. Katie

    Wow – well, as Bruce pointed out, my use of the term ‘superstition’ was as it has occurred before in this general scientific context, rather than a direct insult to anyone’s personal relationships. The fine line between case studies and people’s feelings is obviously one only suitable to professionals – I was cavalierly making use of the comments function here. But as this is treated as much more personal than I expected, it would be best to just lurk.

    Didn’t expect to cause a controversy on someone else’s site – sorry Bruce!

  6. brucehood

    No need to apologize Katie. In comparison to the sorts of exchanges one can find on other sites, this is very mild and I believe it is simply a misunderstanding in terms. Ian and Lynda have experienced something that they are trying to understand.
    b.

  7. Wow. This post gave me chills.

    Of course, being the curious person I am, I briefly wished I could receive an organ transplant so I could test the theory myself. Thankfully I am also sensible, and therefore will not be canyon bashing on a Harley any time soon in an attempt to satisfy that curiosity.

    Were the recipients (other than in Ian and Lynda’ situation, obviously) aware of the donor’s personality characteristics when they were given the organ? Did the police tell Clair Sylvia anything about her donor or did she find out the confirming details after her altered behavior?

    It would be really heeby-jeeby if they had no prior knowledge of the donor’s predilections and then developed similar traits.

    I suppose it would be unethical to start a formal study of donor’s and recipients looking for this pattern though.

    Btw, thank you for the support on the new business. I am more than pleased to get it! (Is book out now? You said you had gotten positives… I must get it and read it if it’s available.)

  8. brucehood

    Actually there are even more weird reports of recipients being able to identify the person who murdered the donor!!!

    Urban myths and wishful thinking are powerful mechanisms for perpetuating beliefs.

    I cannot say for certain that such cases are entirely bogus, they are just anecdotal and do not conform to the usual criteria for ‘evidence.’

    still… fascinating stuff

    b.

  9. That would be so weird. Just think about how it would feel to get a transplant and then believe you were able to identify the donor’s killer.

    That is serious Hollywood material right there.

  10. brucehood

    Cool ….and then you could have the murderer trying to get the kidney back so as not to be identified… and then it all ends in a car crash where the murderer thinks the patient has been killed but then it gets transplanted into another patient… what a twist… ok you write the script and I’ll get the agent!

  11. And then that patient has both the memories of the murder and the attacks on the initial recipient… maybe she decides to take the law into her own hands, leave the killer in a bathtub full of ice with no kidney of his own…

    This could be good….

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  14. I had a liver transplant 3 years ago. Eventhough I am a high skeptical person I found myself in those first few months looking for the fabled signs that my donor was somehow present in my psyche. I realized in short order that part of that was guilt that I was alive because another person had died. I wanted somehow to lessen my guilt by believing that he was still alive in me.

    Obviously, it is all psychological and part of the extremely traumatic event in one’s life that is organ transplantation. I am happy to report that I have never exhibited signs of my donor’s personality unless he was exactly like me in every way. :)

    The only unusual craving I ever had was for a beer, something I never found palatable before my transplant. At first, I thought it might be the fabled “cellular memory” but on closer and more rational examination I realized it had to do with wanting to experience something I’d missed out on in my youth as I was very turned off by beer due to an alcoholic in my family.

    When I speak to other recipients who report this phenomenon the sense I get is always one of desperation and a desire to assuage the guilt by “connecting” to the donor’s spirit or personality in some way rather than just their organ.

  15. brucehood

    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Buck – your insight and experiences are invaluable and your initial reactions seem to be what others also report. In any event, congratulations on a successful transplant. If only the rest of us could appreciate what it is like to be given a new lease of life and make the best of what we have.

  16. adam

    As with Buck i too have recently had a transplant, though mine was actually my second. The first was from my own mother (living) and the second was from a complete stranger (deceased, and the transplant was on Halloween).

    Anyway, i can definitely say that with the kidney from my mom there was no personality crossover. As for the second kidney i have no idea what the donor was like. The only things i’ve noticed with myself that are noticeable at all is that at one job i had it required a lot of number memorization, and i was able to memorize the numbers notably fast. Of course i think i’ve also been more scattered brained over the past few months. So, unless my donor was great with memorization and a complete nut case all at once there’s no crossover there either.

    With cases like the Gammons i’m quite sure that there easily could be some truth to what they’ve experienced. In part because they are married, and that when you are in a loving marriage you tend take on your partner’s personality in certain ways. i can’t imagine how something as big as an organ transplant wouldn’t draw you even closer! Could there be some sort of “psychic” connection? i suppose it’s possible. After all identical twins have claimed some kind of special connection to each other for years. Why couldn’t a loving couple who now share an organ be the same way?

    The human body’s full capabilities are truly a mystery.

    (guess i should note that i had never heard of this phenomenon until this blog – quite interesting)

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  18. wasim

    this is very mysterious and unknown zone no one can assess depth of the organ

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  28. seriously you’re born with mental illness aren’t you ?

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