Daily Archives: June 8, 2009

Would You Accept the Heart of Killer?

2444291746_272fe079a4Would you willing accept an organ transplant from a murderer? This goes a bit further than wearing the clothing of a killer that I discuss in SuperSense. For many there is a fear of taking on the psychological states and even memories of the donor. As noted in an earlier post, such notions of cellular memories are surprisingly persistent. In 1988, Claire Sylvia a US woman in her forties with primary pulmonary hypertension had a heart and lung transplant to save her life. After the operation she reported a change in her personality that she attributed to taking on aspects of the personality from the donor. Her book, wittily entitled “A Change of Heart,” documented her experiences and was offered as evidence for the pseudoscientific theory of cellular memories, where psychological properties are thought to be encoded in organ tissue and can be transplanted into a new host.

One recent small study of transplant patients reported that one in three thought they had taken on some aspect of personality from the donor. There is also the case in 1999 of the terminally-ill British teenager who was forcibly given a heart transplant against her will because she feared she would lose her own identity with someone else’s heart. Clearly this belief is not a trivial issue.

I spoke with a leading Bristol transplant surgeon about this and he explained that there were many physiological reasons why patients experience a change in personality, not mention the simple fact that they have been given a second lease of life in a situation where it is difficult enough to find donor organs. However, Claire Sylvia didn’t just report a change in personality. She developed an inexplicable taste for beer, chicken nuggets and found herself strangely attracted to short blonde women. You guessed it. The 18-yr-old male who was the donor for her heart and lungs, liked his beer and chicken nuggets and had a short blonde girlfriend.

Some patients believe not only that they take on aspects of the donor’s personality but in some cases they form a psychic bond. This is what Ian and Lynda Gammons reported following the successful transplantation of one of Lynda’s kidneys in a life-saving operation for husband.

When I spoke with one of the coordinators for the National transplant programme that just happens to be based in Bristol, she was fairly dismissive of these reports and concerns. I am not sure whether she misunderstood my line of enquiry and thought that I really did believe in cellular memory or she was being evasive. Anyway, it was clear to me that this could be a sensitive issue.

Despite my fascination with this supernatural belief, I don’t think that it is ethically appropriate to interview transplant patients about whether they have concerns about cellular memories from their implanted organs. There are far more serious issues to consider. 

So we conducted a study of healthy adults just to get a sense of attitudes towards whether people would be concerned about the identity of the donor. We got them to rate 20 faces along a number of dimension including how happy would they be to receive a life-saving heart transplant from that person. This gave us our baseline scores. We then repeated the questions for the same 20 faces mixed among another 20 distractor faces. This time we told them that the potential donor was either a convicted murderer of voluntary worker. 

The study which is currently in press with the Journal of Culture & Cognition reveals that you get overall positive (halo) effects when you learn someone is a good person and overall negative (horns) effects when you discover that they are evil. The effect is strongest for the killer’s heart. A second study replicated the effect and found no difference between a potential heart versus liver transplant. Maybe people just think killers are more likely to have diseased organs. Except that the halo and horns effects are found for all questions that are irrelevant to lifestyle. Rather I would submit that psychological essentialism (the idea that identity and morality) are believed to be encoded in the body is the primary reason that people fear the heart of a killer.

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