Can a Heart Transplant Change Your Identity?

When I was in graduate school for philosophy, I took a class with Derek Parfit who was known for his work on the relationship between personal identity and ethics. One of the thought experiments he asked us to consider (taken from his book Reasons and Persons) involved our brain’s being transplanted into two separate bodies–half of it transplanted into each. The question was, who would be “us” after the transplant? One of those resulting people? Both of them? Neither?

At the time, it seemed like a far-fetched example. But I’ve since come across evidence that similar transplants have been taking place for years–without the medical community’s even realizing what’s happening.

In 1988, Claire Sylvia received the first heart-lung transplant performed in New England. In the days and weeks following her surgery, she realized that she had some strange new cravings. For one thing, she found herself “dying for a beer,” even though she’d never liked beer before. For another, she began to add green peppers to everything she ate, whereas before she had always picked them out of her food. And when she was finally able to drive again, she found herself driving to Kentucky Fried Chicken for chicken nuggets, even though she had always steered clear of fast food in the past.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that this woman with a new heart and lungs also suddenly found herself with an immense amount of energy. But it seemed to go beyond the renewed energy of other heart transplant recipients she knew. This woman in her late forties found herself constantly restless, constantly looking for more activity. She even took a backpacking trip to France, during which she found herself “dashing around France at a frantic pace–and for no apparent reason.” “It should have been fun,” she said, “but mostly I felt confused. What are you doing? I kept asking myself. Why are you traveling like this if you’re not enjoying it?”

There were other odds things, too. Like the fact that she rarely got sick anymore, even though she was now on immunosuppressants to prevent rejection of her transplanted organs. Or the fact that she had always been great at spelling, but in the years after her transplant, she began reversing letters.

But the really weird thing was the dreams, especially this “unusually vivid” one that occurred five months after her transplant:

It’s a warm summer day. I’m standing in an open, outside place, a grassy field. With me is a young man who is tall, thin, and wiry, with sandy-colored hair. His name is Tim, and I think his last name may be Leighton, but I’m not sure. I think of him as Tim L. We’re in a playful relationship, and we’re good friends.

The time has come for me to leave him, to join a performing group of acrobats. I start walking down a path, away from Tim. Suddenly I turn around, feeling that something remains unfinished between us. I walk back toward him to say goodbye. Tim watches me as I come closer, and he seems to be pleased that I am making my way back to him.

We kiss–and as we do I inhale him into me. It feels like the deepest breath I have ever taken. And I know at that moment the two of us, Tim and I, will be together forever.

Sylvia says she just knew in waking up from this dream that the young man in it was her heart and lung donor. She had been told at the time of her operation that her donor was an eighteen-year-old male who had died in a motorcycle accident in Maine, but she had not been told his name. This dream, however, caused her to begin thinking of him as Tim. She very much wanted to find out if this name was correct, but her contact at the hospital insisted that the information had to remain confidential.

Two years after her transplant, through a series of coincidences, Sylvia was led to find the obituary of her donor, published in a Maine newspaper. His name was Timothy Lamirande. And his family’s address was listed. When Sylvia wrote to the family, they agreed to meet her. And she discovered a wealth of information about Tim.

Tim was extremely energetic, more than any of his several siblings. He hated sitting still, including watching TV or a movie. Everyone in town said he loved to be working, whether it was “doing construction, painting houses, washing dishes, shoveling snow.” He held three jobs while also going to high school. But he appeared to have had trouble in school, with a learning disability that made reading hard for him. He hardly ever got sick. As for his tastes, he did enjoy drinking beer, and he loved green peppers. “But what he really loved,” said his sister, “was chicken nuggets.” In fact, when he had his motorcycle accident, he had a container of chicken nuggets under his jacket.

After a long conversation with Tim’s family, Claire Sylvia was taken to visit his grave. The inscription over his name read, “FOREVER TOGETHER.” A chill ran down her spine, as she couldn’t help thinking that this was the precise feeling she’d had at the end of her dream.

A Change of Heart-coverClaire Sylvia published her experiences in 1997, in the best-selling book A Change of Heart, which also recounts similar experiences had by other members of her transplant support group. And while her book remains one of the most readable, enjoyable introductions to the subject of “transplant memories,” it is by no means the only source for such information.

De coeur inconnu-couvertureFor instance, French actress Charlotte Valandrey tells in her 2011 book De coeur inconnu about her own experiences after a heart transplant. Not only did she have some very vivid dreams of the accident that took the life of her donor, but she ended up, unbeknownst to her, dating her donor’s widower.

An excellent source for independent investigation of ten cases of transplant memories is a 1999 article in Integrative Medicine by Paul Pearsall, Gary E. R. Schwartz, and Linda G. S. Russek, “Changes in Heart Transplant Recipients that Parallel the Personalities of Their Donors.” And there are additional scholarly references on this topic that I’ll provide in my forthcoming book, The Source and Significance of Coincidences.

While I haven’t yet found a convincing theory about exactly what’s going on in these transplant cases (unconvincing theories abound!), it’s very clear that something is happening that belies the simplistic view of the heart as “just a pump” and the brain as the sole arbiter of consciousness. At the very least, consciousness seems to have connections to other organs in the body.

So far, mainstream science and medicine have been content to ignore the strange experiences of transplant patients, but things seems to be changing ever so slowly in this regard, and I hope they will soon come around. After all, it is when experience is at odds with our expectations that we stand to learn the most! Prolonged, in-depth investigation of transplant experiences may be one of the keys that unlocks a whole new era of consciousness research.

3 responses to “Can a Heart Transplant Change Your Identity?”

  1. That was fascinating – especially the Tim story.

    I’ve often wondered if our ‘self’ is confined to the brain. Apparently not. I hope you’re right that the experience of transplant patients leads to more research

    • Seriously! When she found out, she spent like nine months in shock not being able to talk to the guy. Then it’s unclear at the end of the book whether they get back together or not.

      ETA of book is this winter– hopefully January!

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