15

From this question regarding flatworms remembering things experienced by other flatworms they have eaten, there was a quote on this page regarding another memory transfer mechanism:

the reports of transplant patients having memories related to the donors are legion.

Also see this link on naturalnews.com, this one on skepdic.com and this paper from Montgomery College.

Can it be true that memories are somehow carried within transplanted organs?

  • 1
    I also thought that was an odd claim while reading the article. I didn't have time to go searching for the reports. Hopefully someone here can dig something up. :) – MrHen Jun 22 '11 at 20:31
  • 1
    I do not think the claim is notable enough (and the whole idea seems crazy). – Suma Jun 22 '11 at 21:08
  • 3
    A weaker claim would be that the recipient of an organ can "inherit" traits or cravings from the donor. One example would by Claire Sylvia. She wrote a book about her experience, which was later turned into a movie. – Oliver_C Jun 22 '11 at 21:38
  • 3
    I agree the idea seems lunacy, but this is exactly the place I come to expect excellent reasoned argument as to why it is crazy :-) – Rory Alsop Jun 23 '11 at 7:36
  • 6
    Yes, if it's a brain transplant :) – F'x Jun 23 '11 at 15:06
24

Can transplant recipients remember things their donors experienced?

In a word, No.

One can't examine this claim without addressing the purported idea of "cellular memory" a topic already dealt with very nicely at the skeptic's dictionary. And by Suma in the flatworms question.

"The idea that transplanting organs transfers the coding of life experiences is unimaginable." --Dr. John Schroeder, Stanford Medical Center

There is simply no scientific reason to think that somehow memories of one person are stored in cells and can be passed from one person to another during transplantation. There is not even a scientifically theorized mechanism by which it could happen. The claim remains purely pseudoscientific and proponents often rely on anecdotes, coincidence, and anomaly hunting to make their case.

First, if such a thing were true, I might call attention to the problems which would be faced by the following people:

enter image description heresource

enter image description heresource

and of course, the comically terrifying applications it would have considering this...

enter image description heresource


Obviously, receiving a life-saving or life-changing organ transplant has profound physiological, social and psychological effects on a person.

An organ transplant is a life-altering experience, literally. In many cases, it might well be compared to the near-death experience since many transplants are done only if death is imminent. It should not be surprising to find that many transplant recipients change significantly. Some of these changes might easily be interpreted as being consistent with the donor's likes and dislikes or behaviors. Recipients would want to know about their donor and might consciously or unconsciously be influenced by stories about the person who now "lives inside them." source

It's not surprising how many people could conceivably interpret a mystical significance to some of the changes they are experiencing, but as we can see, changes are normal after such a procedure, even ones the general public might not expect, such as "memory improvement following cardiac transplantation"

Pre-transplant testing revealed normal intelligence and normal attentional, language, and executive abilities but impaired recent memory. Following heart transplant, memory functioning improved significantly, reaching normal levels. Other cognitive abilities remained unchanged. Results suggest that cardiomyopathy is associated with mesial temporal dysfunction, possibly attributable to inadequate or reduced cerebral blood flow and related hypometabolism

Of course it's quite tempting to think simply that the transplanted heart might have come from a very intelligent person, especially if it did happen to come from an individual with above average intelligence.

There are bound to be strange coincidences, strange similarities between donor and recipient. There are bound to be anecdotal stories which sound astonishing, but given the sheer volume of transplants performed this year alone

enter image description here source

the 73 cases Pearsall lists in his book (cited in the question) seem even less compelling. Especially since he has had some noted "credibility" issues in the past

Dr Pearsall claims that he is “Fully licensed and board certified clinical neuropsychologist, License Number 000773″ Even better, the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology lists all its members and guess what, under ‘P’ for Pearsall, no-one of that name exists. source

I certainly wouldn't say these claims are "legion". But of course, you can try to stretch the data that way if you keep the claims vague and apply them to subjective things like "developing tastes" or "artistic capability" such as the case of William Sheridan.

William Sheridan's drawing skills were stuck at nursery level. His stick figures were the sort you would expect of a child. But as he convalesced after a heart transplant operation, he experienced an astonishing revelation

I'd say that's subjective, as his art went from this....

enter image description here

to this...

enter image description here

which could likely be explained by any number of natural mechanisms, such as having more time to practice drawing while recovering, or even perhaps as a result of the increase in cognitive function seen in some heart transplant patients as I noted above.

With regard to the much more widely-known case of Claire Sylvia, one needs only to look at the words of William Novak, one of her supporters....

"The point is that Claire is not claiming that you take on the entire personality of the donor, just fragments that come through. One of the things I like about her is that she doesn't make grand, sweeping, hard to believe claims. She doesn't claim she is two people at once, but she does believe that something unusual has happened" source

He is absolutely correct, something unusual did happen. Claire Sylvia was the first woman in New England to successfully undergo a heart-lung transplant. It's easy to see how her entire case could get blown out of proportion, especially given the media's tendency to report "the miracles of modern medicine" as simply "miracles".

Sylvia, 47, was dying from pulmonary hypertension — a disease that increases the body's blood pressure in the lung vasculature and most often leads to death — in 1988 when she became the first person in New England to have a heart-lung transplant. source

and as such, she was given some attention from the media,and anything she said was almost guaranteed an audience.

Because I was the first person in the state to have such an operation, there was a lot of publicity, and two reporters came to the hospital to interview me.source

It's also very possible that the life and death of the donor could have received equal attention from the journalists, even if it was not equally reported. This could quite logically have caused Sylvia to be exposed to leading questions from journalists who had already researched the life and death of Tim Lamirande. The always-tragic motorcycle crash death of an 18 year old boy is likely to make the news, let alone when it becomes intertwined with a medical "breakthrough" such as this. But that's just one explanation that doesn't resort immediately to mystical thinking.

  • 1
    and they're sourced :) – Monkey Tuesday Jun 23 '11 at 22:29
  • All the images included in this post are now dead links. Could you try to re-link or perhaps re-upload them? – Aron Rotteveel Sep 4 '11 at 7:16
  • @aron they seem to be working for me. – Monkey Tuesday Sep 5 '11 at 13:32
  • @Monkey strangely, they seem to be working for me as well now! Guess it was a glitch in the host. – Aron Rotteveel Sep 5 '11 at 14:30
  • 1
    "There is simply no scientific reason to think that somehow memories of one person are stored in cells and can be passed from one person to another during transplantation." This is basically an argument from lack of immagination. We grant the ability of having a memory to various specis that don't have that many neurons. If the PNS wouldn't been able to store information for muscle reflexes human probably couldn't learn how to walk. I don't the PNS can't store memories. The only way to find out would be running a proper study. This post links no proper studies. – Christian Sep 26 '12 at 12:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .