The Heart’s Memory

Medical science might be on the verge of a truly amazing discovery. For decades, it’s been thought that the only organ responsible for human memory is the brain. And while it’s true that the lion’s share of memories and preferences are indeed kept in the brain, it turns out that the brain might not be the only organ where such things are kept.

It all began when two American doctors – working separately on either coast – noticed something odd about heart transplant patients. Once the patients had recovered, their personalities started to undergo subtle changes. For example, a woman named Claire Sylvia started drinking beer and eating green peppers and chicken nuggets, even though she’d never enjoyed doing so before. Bill Wohl, a middle aged man from Phoenix, was a dedicated businessman that rarely – if ever – exercised before his heart transplant; as soon as he was healthy enough to do so, he stopped working so much and took up extreme sports. An Englishman named Jim that had barely graduated from school and led the decidedly non-academic life of a truck driver suddenly began writing poetry. An unnamed woman that hated violence so much that she’d even leave the room when her husband watched football started watching football and swearing like a sailor while doing so. Another unnamed person – this time a 47 year-old male – suddenly developed a fascination with classical music, and could even hum obscure classical pieces he’d never heard before.

All of these changes could be chalked up to any number of things. The immunosuppressant drugs that transplant patients require to keep their bodies from rejecting their new hearts have been known to cause profound changes in people’s personalities. The sheer stress of the transplant itself could be one of those “life altering” events that are so profound that it causes people to do new and different things. Perhaps the fear of death causes many people to be more introspective, resulting in some people “living life to the fullest” or others to turn inside and write poetry.

Or perhaps – just perhaps – the heart contains the same types of neurons that the brain does, and both the heart and the mind are connected in some kind of “loop”. So when a heart is taken from one person and given to another, the newly changed “loop” causes people to subtly change.

Sound silly? Impossible? What if I were to tell you that Claire Sylvia’s donor was a man named Tim that loved eating green peppers and chicken nuggets. And what if I were to tell you that Bill Wohl’s donor was a Hollywood stuntman that loved extreme sports like rock climbing and skydiving? And what about Englishman Jim, whose donor was a writer? The donor of the woman that hated football? He was a boxer. And the donor of the man that suddenly developed a taste for classical music? He was a 17 year-old violinist that was stuck by a car after practice one day.

These results are amazing, but not typical. The two American doctors mentioned at the beginning of this article – psychoneuroimmunologist Dr. Paul Pearsall and Dr. Gary Schwartz (professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona and former director of the Yale University Psychophysiology Center) – only found evidence of “memory transfer” in 10 out of 70 transplant patients. But still – if it can be proven, then it’s simply amazing.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, check out this book by Paul Pearsall, this book by Gary Schwartz and\or this book by Claire Sylvia, about the changes she underwent as a result of her transplant.

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