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.