Organ transplants with added soul

Organ transplants with added soul April 16, 2008

Via Archaeoporn comes this gem from the Daily Mail about a man who got a heart transplant and – allegedly – a little bit more into the bargain. Spookily enough, the dead man’s soul was transplanted too.

How do we know? Well, the transplantee shot himself, despite previously seeming to be happy. And (cue eerie music) the donor “had also shot himself – in identical circumstances.” Presumably he was not a heart recipient himself, although the Mail chooses not to get bogged down in pesky details.

But enough of this nonsense. The Mail assures us that…

…a few brave scientists have started claiming that our memories and characters are encoded not just in our brain, but throughout our entire body. Consciousness, they claim, is created by every living cell in the body acting in concert.

Only one of these brave souls is mentioned, one Professor Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona. He turns out to be a bona fide Professor, albeit with an interesting research focus – his latest book is called The G.O.D. Hypothesis: How Science is Discovering God in Everything, Including Us. And his current project is something called The Veritas Research Program, which was “was created primarily to test the hypothesis that the consciousness (or personality or identity) of a person survives physical death.”

Sounds interesting, no? Especially given that “Dr. Schwartz has published more than four hundred scientific papers”. Somewhere in among them, you would think, there might be something that would support his claims.

So I checked PubMed, the bible of medical research publications. Turns out Dr Schwartz has indeed co-authored a lot of papers (198 rather than 400, but not bad). Twenty one of them were clinical trials.

Sadly, not a single of his clinical trials supports his claims about cellular memory and transplanting the soul. Oh well.

He did publish something 8 years ago that is a kind of preliminary stab at gathering evidence. In his 2000 paper, Changes in heart transplant recipients that parallel the personalities of their donors, he and Paul Pearsall spoke to 10 heart transplant recipients, and also to friends and relatives of the donors. From this, they tried to pull together anything that could be construed as a match. They report:

Two to 5 parallels per case were observed between changes following surgery and the histories of the donors. Parallels included changes in food, music, art, sexual, recreational, and career preferences, as well as specific instances of perceptions of names and sensory experiences related to the donors (e.g., one donor was killed by a gun shot to the face; the recipient had dreams of seeing hot flashes of light in his face).

In other words, this is classic confirmation bias. If you look at enough things, you will always find a ‘co-incidental’ match. The problem is, you need to take in to account all the possible ‘co-incidences’ that could have occurred but didn’t.

There’s an easy way to get round the problem of confirmation bias. First, you add in some controls – pairs of people who never had a heart transplant, but are otherwise similar to the people you’re studying (age, gender etc). Then you anonymise the data and give them to an independent reviewer. If they can pair up the transplant donors and recipients, then you know you’re on to something. Otherwise it’s just balderdash.

It’s been 8 years since that paper was published. That’s plenty of time for Dr Pearsall & Schwartz to do some valid science. But they’ve chosen not to (they do have books to write and lecture tours to conduct, after all…)

And as a postscript, what about the journalist who wrote the Daily Mail story, Dr Danny Penman? Turns out he has form, having published in 2006 (in the Daily Mail again) a similarly credulous article on spiritual healing. Andy Lewis at the Quackometer takes this one apart.

Pearsall P, Schwartz GE, Russek LG. Changes in heart transplant recipients that parallel the personalities of their donors. Integr Med 2000 Mar 21;2(2):65-72. doi:10.1016/S1096-2190(00)00013-5

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