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.


Filed under Essentialism, Research

8 responses to “Would You Accept the Heart of Killer?

  1. You know, I would likely be creeped out if I had a heart replacement procedure and later found out the organ came from a serial killer.

    However, pragmatically, if I didn’t have the procedure, I would be dead.

    So… I would rather accept the heart thank you.

  2. I watched a documentary on this subject some time ago. I am not a believer in cellular memory but the transplant recipients in the doco were thoroughly convinced. One man who had been barely literate before the operation was now writing screeds of poetry every day and a couch potato who received the organs of a stunt man had taken up extreme sports

  3. Is anybody else old enough to remeber the British punk band ‘The Adverts’ and their hit ‘Gary Gilmore’s eyes’?

    Lyrics ici…


  4. The girl with the chicken nuggets jones–she had no way of knowing that about her donor, did she?

    I know, cell memory isn’t likely, but I still find that particular story fascinating. Is it possible that someone told her about the man?

    I read too many true crime books by Ann Rule, so I know that I would be freaked out by the possibility of receiving a killer’s heart, but what is the alternative? Could you pose the question that the individual would have to take the killer’s heart or die? I wonder how that would sway the answers.

  5. Pingback: Blog Anthology Final Selections! | Young Australian Skeptics

  6. This was a Excellent write up, I will bookmark this post in my Digg account. Have a good day.

  7. John Woody

    Taking a killers heart is one thing, what about a paedophile’s heart? What about if you were a Jew and the donor was a muslim? What about if you like classical music and the donor was a punk musician? What about if you were a teetotal non smoking person and the donor was a beer swilling smoker? What about if you could swim and the donor couldn’t and panicked anywhere near water? What about if you were straight and the donor was gay? There are so many ‘what ifs’ that a new heart donor system needs to be brought in if this story is a scientific fact!! Personally I think it is tosh!!

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s