What is Cellular Memory?

Cellular memory is a theory that states the brain is not the only organ that stores memories or personality traits, that memory as a process can form in other systems in the body and can be stored in organs such as the heart. This theory is not new. Imaginative fiction writers probably were writing about the concept as early as the 1800’s, long before transplants of anything were even considered plausible. Perhaps it was Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac that popularized the idea for the first time. In the story a pianist looses his hands and a killer’s hands are transplanted in their place. Of course the story has been spoofed and remade so many times in our own culture there’s scarcely anyone that doesn’t know how the story ends, with the killer’s hands possessing the main character to kill. This is an extreme and over simplified version of what cellular memory could be. In our modern culture where organ transplants are being done daily we have yet to come up with a case such as the above mentioned but we have stumbled onto some pretty strange coincidences. First studied in heart transplant recipients Cellular Memory was noted when upon waking up from surgery patients would display a strange change in tastes, opinions, cravings, and other mild personality changes. Could it be the organs given to them had some part of the donor’s memory left within it?

Modern Examples

Most examples of cellular memory in transplant patients are recorded by scientists doing studies, with the aid of a hospital system that forbids the transplantee to know or speak to the donor’s family. Because of this most of the cases are written of without the use of names, leaving these patients stories at large but still in obscurity.

One of the few cases we know the patient’s name was a woman called Claire Sylvia who received a heart and lung transplant in the 1970’s from an eighteen year old male donor who had been in a motorcycle accident. None of this information was known to Sylvia, who upon waking up claimed she had a new and intense craving for beer, chicken nuggets, and green peppers, all food she didn’t enjoy prior to the surgery. A change in food preferences is probably the most noted in heart transplant patients. Sylvia wrote a book about her experiences after learning the identity of her donor called A Change of Heart.

Other documented cases have been perplexing and sometimes extreme. A 47 year old man receiving a heart from a 17 year old black boy suddenly picked up an intense fondness for classical music. The boy whose heart had been donated was killed in a drive-by shooting, still clutching his violin case in his hands. A 47 year old transplant patient claimed that his new heart was responsible for a sudden onset of eating disorders, heralded from the heart’s previous owner, a 14 year old girl. Once a change in sexual orientation was even documented in a twenty seven year old lesbian who soon after getting a new heart settled down and married a man.

The most stunning example of cellular memory was found in an eight year old girl who received the heart of a ten year old girl. The recipient was plagued after surgery with vivid nightmares about an attacker and a girl being murdered. After being brought to a psychiatrist her nightmares proved to be so vivid and real that the psychiatrist believed them to be genuine memories. As it turns out the ten year old whose heart she had just received was murdered and due to the recipients violent reoccurring dreams she was able to describe the events of that horrible encounter and the murderer so well that police soon apprehended, arrested, and convicted the killer.

Other common quirks recorded have been changes in attitude, temperament, vocabulary, patience levels, philosophies, and tastes in food and music. The phenomena has just recently been put into studies. The most notable of which was Dr Paul Peasall’s questioning of 150 heart transplant patients which was published in Near-Death Studies magazine in 2002 entitled “Changes in Heart Transplant Recipients That Parallel the Personalities of Their Donors” from which the aforementioned cases are mostly from.

How Cellular Memory Might Work

It is thought that cellular memory might be possible since the discovery that neuropeptides exist not only in the brain as once thought but in all the tissues of the body. These neuropeptides are a way for the brain to “speak” to other bodily organs and for the organs to relay information back. However it is unknown if these newly found circuits could indeed store memories as the brain does in different organs. Due to the amount of peptides in the heart this organ is seen to have special potential in the study of this phenomena. However many answers still remain. Why don’t all transplant recipients have these experiences? It’s been theorized this may be due to the fact not all of them are in tune with their body as some other individuals may be. Perhaps the explanation lies with the sensitivity of the individual.

Alternate Theories

  • The Hospital Grapevine Theory: The hospital grapevine theory is the simplest alternate explanation, stating that patients may be influenced due to information they hear from nurses talking to each other or their surgeons while they are under anesthesia. Although it’s forbidden to tell a transplant recipients the identity of the donor or any personal information there’s no such rule that prevents hospital staff from talking amongst themselves. Could all these coincidences be a placebo effect given to the highly suggestible?
  • The Quantum Theory: This theory claims that the answers may lie in a world we are as of yet very ill-equipped to prove, in the wonderfully strange world of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics tries to explain mathematically events that occur with atoms and the particles which may make up atoms. This is world where regular physics comes to die and can be used loosely to explain virtually anything that can’t be explained otherwise. It’s tempting but I’ll leave this one up to the mathematicians to toy with. As of yet I haven’t heard of any of them proposing this theory, it seems to be something thrown out there by laymen.
  • The Drug Theory: It is the body’s duty to protect itself from foreign objects and that is generally what it does when it receives organs that weren’t grown in it from conception. This is why patients have to receive immunosuppressant drugs to stop their own bodies from attacking the new organ. There have only been a small handful of cases of people who have lived without these drugs, and they have done so on their own against the advice of doctors. This theory states that these drugs can be the cause of the changes in personality. Perhaps in some strange way these drugs can be psychoactive as well as immunosuppressive. This theory probably chalks up the specific nature of the said changes in personality to coincidence.

Documentary Snippet on Organ Transplant Memories (contains surgical footage).
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