Friday, April 25, 2008

Can a transplanted heart lead to transplanted thoughts?

A friend wrote to ask about an interesting problem: Whether our physical hearts can influence our thoughts? He had in mind an article in a not-quite-reliable source that claimed that a heart transplant patient had changed her thinking, to resemble the thinking of the heart donor.

Of course, I immediately thought of an old movie whose name I can't remember (if you can, please e-mail me at A wealthy, tiresome, and desperately selfish woman discovers that she is going blind. Her doctor arranges a corneal transplant, telling her that the donor was a much-loved priest. The operation is a success, but much more remarkable is her transformation into a caring, sensitive soul. She sees the world with new eyes! everyone says.

Later, the doctor reveals the truth: In reality, her new corneas came from a condemned murderer. Her transformation, however, came from within, because she believed it possible.

But then, of course, there's The Eye (2002) in which a corneal transplant recipient whose donor was a murder victim suffers increasingly evil visions ... plus a host of schlocksters that would be urban legends if they hadn't hit the screen first. (Now you have to pay to see the tales instead of hearing them free around the coffee urn.)

Anyway, I wrote back to my friend, saying,
The question I would like to know the answer to is this: Did the transplant patient change in order to reflect the actual donor or what she was told about the donor?

I suppose that most doctors put a good "face" on the donor, to avoid the proposed recipient turning the organ down. The donor might be described as "a devoted father of four and a loyal team member" rather than "a cocaine addict shot during a gunfight over a bad drug deal." The thing to see here is that these descriptions might apply to the same person, seen from different angles - the funeral oration vs. the police record, for example.

Also, heart transplantation is very major surgery, in which the patient is technically dead (except for medical equipment) during the procedure. Afterward, most patients must lead a more cautious and restricted life - or die despite the transplant. So the effect of the ordeal and its aftermath on the patient must also be factored in.

My friend wrote back to say that in the case recounted, the recipient knew nothing about her donor and had only investigated the question after feeling that she had changed her thinking. To which I replied, yes, but perhaps people speak "nothing but good" of the dead in these cases ...

Anyway, I'm not a hyperskeptic. I just think that these factors must be considered. That is what makes responsible social science such a tricky business.

As Mario and I discovered while working on The Spiritual Brain, this kind of what-are-we-really-measuring question came up when doctors were assessing life changes following near death experiences (where one experiences oneself as dead and looks back on one's life).

Some researchers argued that the mere fact of having a heart attack would cause patients to become more concerned about relationships and less concerned about success. However, investigation showed that that was not the case. Near death experiences were far more commonly associated with a change in attitude to life than mere close encounters with death were.