Jun 05 2009

Personality Transplant

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Comments: 85

If you needed an organ transplant, how would you feel about receiving an organ donated from a serial killer? Would it bother you to have the heart of a psychotic murderer beating in your chest? Should it?

There are two factors at work here – one intellectual, and one emotional. The intellectual factor is easier to deal with. There is no compelling evidence nor any plausible mechanism by which the transplantation of any organ will confer any of the personality of the donor to the recipient. You might be tempted to quip – unless it is a brain transplant. But I maintain that there is no such thing as a brain transplant. If such were possible (which is currently is not) it would be better understood as a body transplant – but I digress.

The notion that transplants convey some of the spirit or psychic energy of the donor is pure pseudoscience. This does not stop some from claiming just that. Gary Schwartz, professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, infamous in skeptical circles for his so-called After Life Experiments, believes he has documented cases of personality transplant.

Here is one example case:

In one such case, a young dancer received a heart-and-lung transplant. Before the operation, she had been very health-conscious; yet, the very first thing she did on leaving the hospital was to head for a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, and wolf down an order of chicken nuggets‹something she would never have done before. Her personality changed, too: she became aggressive and impetuous whereas, before, she had been calm and conservative.

Let’s see – aggressive, impetuous, and hungry.  What could possibly cause such changes in someone who just had an organ transplant? Those happen to all be typical side effects of prednisone, an immunosuppressant drug that many transplant recipients require. I don’t have the details of this case to know that this is actually the answer, but the point is that tranplant recipients often go on numerous medications and may have physiological changes that could result in changes in their personality and behavior.

Schwartz, who has made a career out of self-delusion, did not conduct the kind of research that would have ruled out known physiological effects. He simply engaged in the typical anomaly hunting followed by confirmation bias. It turns out the kid who donated the heart also liked KFC – what are the odds?

Despite a lack of evidence and plausibility, belief in “personality transplants” persists in the population, much like any other paranormal belief, like ESP or reincarnation.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the emotional aspect of this question – even if you reject the pseudoscience, and understand on an intellectual level that a heart is just protein, would it bother you in the least to be living on the heart of a killer?

This is exactly the question explored by University of Bristol cognitive neuroscientist, Professor Bruce Hood. He is the author of the recent book Supersense, which is all about how humans are hardwired to feel as if we have a psychic or metaphysical connection to other people and the universe. For example, during some of his lectures he will hold up a cardigan sweater and ask the audience who would be willing to wear the sweater. Most hands go up. Then he informs them that the sweater belonged to a famous serial killer – almost every hand goes down.

He recently conducted a study in which subjects were ask to imagine they needed an organ transplant and were asked to view pictures of people and rate how happy they would be to receive an organ from each person. They were then told that specific people were either good or bad people, and he showed that subjects were less happy about receiving organs from morally bad people. This, of course, makes no scientific sense. He says:

“This explains the findings that most people were repulsed by the thought of receiving a transplant from a murderer.

“Essentially they believe they will somehow take on those characteristics of the donor.”

The source of this repulsion, he argues, is in our evolved emotion of disgust at feeling we are being contaminated by something tainted.  This emotion extends to moral taint, and includes the “sense” that we can be tainted through a psychic connection to others – even through a physical object, like a sweater.

Hood is definitely onto something, and such notions have been bandied about in skeptical circles for years. We seem to be dealing with a species (humans) whose default mode of thinking includes magical thinking as well as a self-image as spiritual entities above the muck of the physical world. We all want to believe Yoda when he said:

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

Understanding human nature is key to any human pursuit, which includes science and any attempt at understanding reality.  This includes understanding the organization of our brains, which is hierarchical. This means that our highest and most recently evolved cognitive functions can override our more primitive instincts – even Hood’s “supersense.”

Therefore, in my opinion, it is OK to feel what we feel. Feeling revulsion at the notion of receiving a transplant from a cold-hearted killer is just part of the human condition. This is not something to be criticized, but to be recognized. As long as we exercise our higher cortical functions and make rational decisions despite what our guts might be telling us. Listen to your gut – but don’t think with it.

BTW – I will be interviewing Bruce Hood for next week’s episode of the SGU.

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