The Hands of Orlac - a cell memory nightmare

The Hands of Orlac – a cell memory nightmare

The idea of cell memory, that memories are stored outside of the brain in individual cells and organs, is an old one.

In the 1924 film “The Hands of Orlac” Conrad Veidt plays Paul Orlac, a famous concert pianist who loses both of his hands in a terrible railway accident.  Orlac’s doctor then agrees to graft a new pair of hands onto his arms, only to choose the executed murderer Vasseur as the best donor.  Following the operation Orlac comes to believe that his hands are out of his control, as he is no longer able to play the piano.  His life spirals out of his control, and eventually he finds his father murdered, with Vasseur’s knife plunged into his chest, and Vasseur’s fingerprints on the weapon.

Belief in cell memory continues to this day and Gary Schwartz, a professor who heads the Veritas programme researching cell memory at the University of Arizona, believes that it affects at least 10% of all organ donor recipients.  He has amassed a group of 70 cases of this apparently happening in heart, lung, liver and kidney transplants – none of which, it must be said, have the drama of Paul Orlac’s.

These cases include that of a woman, a self-described militant lesbian and fast food fan, who received the heart of a vegetarian health-food shop owner.  Not only did the recipient develop an aversion to fast food following the transplant, but she became engaged to a man, and no longer found women attractive.

In another case a five year old boy, who received the heart of a three year old called Tim, who had died after falling from a window reaching for a Power Rangers figure.  After the transplant the boy developed an imaginary friend called Timmy, a boy about half his age who liked Power Rangers.

Other cases include a middle aged man who received the heart of a teenage girl and appeared to inherit her eating disorder; a lawyer who hated chocolate who developed a craving for Snickers; a vertigo sufferer who took up climbing; and a boy who developed a fear of water after being given the heart of a child who drowned.

Whilst individual cases may appear striking they are a long way from being evidence that cell memory exists.  The Veritas programme that Professor Schwartz oversees, is a longitudinal study of organ transplant recipients using structured interviews to measure how often these “inherited” characteristics occur.  The nature of the study though shows how difficult it is to measure any such effect – there is no exact science to measuring aspects of personality.

It isn’t just the essentially subjective nature that makes studying cell memory problematic.  There’s also a problem with confirmation bias – in researchers who want to find proof for what they already believe, and in donors’ families who want to believe that their child or relative continues to live on.

Where there doesn’t appear to be any bias toward believing in cell memory is amongst those who received the transplants.  A study conducted amongst them, with no prompting about their donors’ habits and personalities, showed that only 6% felt that their personality had changed because of their new heart.  Low as this figure is it’s still higher than the percentage of total heart transplants that the 74 cases in Dr Schwartz’s study represented.

The compelling finding from this other study was that 79% felt that their personality hadn’t changed at all, and of those that did over 70% felt it was due to the life threatening nature of their surgery.  If anything is to account for the change in those who experienced one it would seem that this is the most likely contender, rather than “cell memory”.

If you now no longer trust your liver to help you remember your PIN then why not read more about how to improve your memory.

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