Organ transplants: a change of heart in more ways than one?
In 2006, a 63-year-old man with a very limited artistic ability underwent a heart transplant. Following the operation, the man was amazed to find that his artistic ability had dramatically increased. Nurses at the hospital were also astonished with his new talent. It was only after the man found out who the organ donor was that his remarkable ability began to make sense. The organ donor was a keen artist.
Is it possible that the skills of the donor were passed on to the recipient through the heart? It doesn’t seem possible; how can this sort of information be stored outside of the brain? Cellular memory theory could explain it!
What is cellular memory theory?
Cellular memory is the idea that memories and personality traits can be stored in any individual cells or in other organs, not just in the brain.
The case of the 63-year-old man was not the only one of its kind, and supporters of this theory draw on anecdotal evidence (such as that of Claire Sylvia who wrote a book about her experiences) and some published research.
One study followed 10 organ transplant recipients and found that there were two to five parallels with the donor’s history per transplant recipient. These parallels included changes in food, music, art, sexual, recreational, and career preferences.
A second study that interviewed 47 transplant recipients found that 6% of patients felt that their personalities had changed because of their new organ.
Science or pseudoscience?
If you’re not convinced by these studies, you’re not alone. Sceptics have highlighted the fact that both studies were very small, and especially in the case of the first study, the participants were chosen to prove the researchers’ bias.
1242 organ transplants were performed in Australia in 2015 alone, so the small number of reported cases of personality changes due to organ transplants in history worldwide raises doubts about the validity of cellular memory.
As well as this, none of the people advocating for cellular memory have provided any sound scientific explanation for how cellular memory would actually work in the body, and how memories and personality traits could be stored in organs other than the brain.
On the other hand, cellular memory sceptics provide several logical answers to why some people may think that they have taken on characteristics of their organ donors.
Possible explanations include side effects from the medications used in the surgery, or a response to the traumatic and life-threatening experience of having an organ transplant. The perceived personality changes could be coincidental, and the recipient has just drawn a parallel with the donor. The transplant recipients may also be subconsciously influenced by information they may have heard or been told while they were in hospital.
While there’s still a lot we don’t know about the human body, as interesting as cellular memory sounds, it is considered a pseudoscience. So no need to worry, if you’re on the Australian Organ Donor Register, there’s no real evidence that your personality, memories, or other characteristics will be passed on to your recipients!