Sunday, 7 June 2009

Human Remains



According to Professor Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol University, one in three transplant patients believes that they take on some characteristics of the organ donor – preferences, memories and other personality traits.

 The idea that essential properties exist and persist in body parts isn't new; there are horror films about people taking on the characteristics of donors, becoming murderers (inevitably), like the 1946 film The Beast With Five Fingers

 What may be surprising is that so many people still believe this is possible.

 Although the numbers vary according to the source, there is plenty of evidence of how widespread this phenomenon is. As just one example, the Daily Mail ran a story about a woman who used to read trashy novels but began to read Austen and Dostoevsky after her kidney transplant. The article also cites a U.S. woman terrified of heights who became a climber and a seven-year-old girl who had nightmares about being killed after being given the heart of a murdered child. Not surprisingly, a lot of these stories are in a similar sensationalist vein; ‘Transplant patient now likes peas’ would not be much of a story. Although certain papers could probably make something of it.

 The Mail article describes 

cellular memory phenomenon, which claims human cells contain clues to our personalities and tastes that somehow bypass our brains. Academics and medical experts have dismissed the theory as "nonsense" but it has many supporters, not least among transplant patients themselves.

At the end of March 2009, there were 16,124,871 people on the British Organ Donor Register . That’s over 16 million potential personalities waiting to be transferred to a new home. The same website states that in the last two years, over six thousand people received donated organs. If Hood’s figures are correct, that’s two thousand who think they are sharing their bodies with some sort of supernatural parasite.

 The idea that our essence, what makes us who we are, is imprinted in every cell requires quite a leap of faith. If this were true, when we give blood, do we become temporarily less ourselves until our bodies make up the blood? If we lose a limb, are we permanently diminished? How do babies develop unique personalities when they are made up of cells from other animals (unless the mother is vegan) and fed in the womb by the mother’s blood? And what about when people have sex without condoms or even kiss? Do they absorb some of each others’ identity? Is our personality permanently in flux, expanding every time food is turned into part of our bodies and shrinking every time we poo? Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman takes this idea to an interesting place.

Back on more scientific ground, while scientists do not find any evidence for cellular memory (which sounds suspiciously like water memory theory espoused by homeopaths) there is no doubt that it occurs for solid scientific reasons.

It’s not ignorance or social conditioning that causes us to commit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy like the people in the Mail article or to see connections where there are only coincidences. Our brains are hard-wired by evolution to seek patterns, to ascribe significance to coincidences and to infer causal links. The brain is constantly processing and interpreting the world and not always correctly. We like links, because they give a sense of order, a way to predict the future and reasons for things happening – and sometimes someone or something to blame for unpleasant phenomena.

One of the ways we can make mistakes is believing in mind-body dualism. Research by Hood and others has shown that pre-school children too young for social conditioning think that the mind is separate, that even after death, something persists, some sort of essence. There are always human remains. More explanation for this from Hood himself is in an audio clip from his talk at the Cheltenham Science Festival (2009).

 The effect of this essentialism is also seen in beliefs about inanimate objects. For example, Hood ran an experiment where he asked people if they would be prepared to put on an old cardigan that had been thoroughly cleaned. Most were willing. Until he told them that it was Fred West’s cardigan - nearly all of them changed their minds.  He comments: 

There are always the exceptions, of course. Some people resolutely keep their hand raised. Typically, they are male and determined to demonstrate their rational control. Or they suspect, rightly, that I am lying about the owner of the cardigan. What is remarkable is that audience members sitting next to one of these individuals visibly recoil from them: how could someone even consider touching such an appalling garment?

 The same mind-set is in action in people who collect memorabilia or autographs of famous people or historical figures – the essence of the original owner or the autographer is somehow transferred into the object or signature. Of course, feeling a close bond with someone not physically with us can be a positive experience. It’s not necessarily an evolutionary flaw to feel wrong about ripping up a photo of someone close to us.

 If people have such beliefs about inanimate objects, then they are likely to feel much more strongly about something that was once part of someone’s body, like an organ. Hood reports that:

 In a second study, based on a hypothetical scenario, 20 students were asked how they would feel about receiving lifesaving organs from a range of possible donors. When students were told that the donor was a murderer they were strongly opposed to receiving the organ. When told that the donor was a good person, their responses were more positive. (op cit)

 There are other ramifications of this belief; racists who do not want to donate or receive organs (or even blood) to or from certain people, for example. On the positive side, some people may be more inclined to donate if they think it’s a way of living on after death in a real sense although the idea of hitchhiking in someone else’s body, influencing their lives, warping their personalities to be more like theirs is hard to see in anything other than a sinister light. And what if someone receives blood or organs from more than one donor? Will there be a war of influence or will some sort of multiple personality develop?

 This kind of essentialist belief permeates everyone’s lives to some degree. Even though we may know that such beliefs are not rational, it’s not easy to shake them off because we have evolved to think in ways that help us survive and some of these ways have side-effects. We are linking animals who naturally join up the dots. We just don’t do random.

 Whether Thing in The Addams Family ever had a body is open to conjecture.

 

 

 

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