Question: Do transplant recipients get the memories of their donors?
Answer: We all know the typical horror movie plot of the transplanted hand that starts killing people, with the emphasis on scantily clad coeds. Well, that actually doesn’t happen. But it has been found that some people get more than just organs when they receive transplants. Some common quirks recorded have been changes in attitude, temperament, vocabulary, patience levels, philosophies, and tastes in food and music. The theory behind this is called cellular memory, which states that the brain is not the only organ that stores memories or personality traits, and that memory as a process can form in other systems in the body and can be stored in organs such as the heart.
Paul Pearsall, a neuropsychologist, studied 74 transplant patients, 23 of whom were heart transplant recipients. These case studies point to the fact that both the brain and the heart hold important information about a person, and this information from the donor seems to install into the recipient’s memory.
Pearsall became open to the possibility of cellular memory in transplant recipients partly because of his own bone marrow transplant in 1987, and also because of his Hawaiian heritage that has always valued the heart as being a “thinking, feeling, communicating, and spiritual organ.”
The most stunning example of cellular memory was found in an 8-year-old girl who received the heart of a 10-year-old girl who was murdered. The recipient was plagued after surgery with vivid nightmares about an attacker and a girl being killed. After several consultations with a psychiatrist, it was decided that the police should be notified. The heart recipient was able to identify key clues about the murder, including who the murderer was, when and how it happened, and even the words spoken by the murderer to the victim. Amazingly, the entire testimony turned out to be true and the murderer was convicted for his crime.
If you still feel skeptical, consider some of the following cases Pearsall noted:
The donor was a 17-year-old black male student who was a victim of a drive-by shooting. He was walking to violin class and loved classical music with a passion. The recipient, a 47-year-old white male foundry worker, stated that he used to hate classical music, but now loved it. Knowing nothing about his donor except for race and gender, he stated that his new love for music was not because of his new heart “because a black guy from the ‘hood wouldn’t be into that. Now it calms my heart. I play it all the time.” He claimed not to be a racist, but for the first time invited his black friends over from work. His wife stated that “it’s like he doesn’t see their color anymore. He seems more comfortable and at ease with these black guys, but he’s not aware of it.”
The donor was a 19-year-old woman killed in an automobile accident. She was a vegetarian who owned a health food restaurant. As she was dying, she wrote notes to her mother saying how she could feel the impact of the car hitting her. The recipient was a 29-year-old woman who reported that she could actually feel the accident her donor had. “I can feel the impact in my chest. It slams into me.” She also said she was “McDonald’s biggest money-maker” but now meat made her throw up and her heart actually started to race when she smelled meat. What really freaked her out was that her sexual orientation seemed to have changed somewhat. Prior to the transplant, she was openly gay. Afterward, she started dating men and was engaged at the time of the study. She said, “The sex is terrific. The problem is, I’m gay. At least, I thought I was. After my transplant, I’m sort of semi- or confused gay. Women still seem attractive to me, but my boyfriend turns me on; women don’t. I have absolutely no desire to be with a woman. I think I got a gender transplant.”
The donor was a 34-year-old police officer shot attempting to arrest a drug dealer. The recipient was a 56-year-old college professor who stated that the only real side-effect of his surgery was glimpsing Jesus and then feeling burning hot flashes of light in his face. The police officer was shot in the face, so that the last thing he must have seen was a terrible flash as he felt the burning bullet. The killer was never found, but has been described as a “guy with long hair, deep eyes, a beard, and this real calm look. He looks sort of like some of the pictures of Jesus.”
So check the organ donor box on your next driver’s license renewal – you really can save a life. But in the meantime, make sure that you behave yourself while you’re still in this world, because some of your secrets may stay here even when you go to the great beyond.