What is the soul, and if it exists, where does it lie? Is it some intangible force that leaves us upon death, just inhabiting this meat puppet of a body until it has expired, or does part of it somehow remain to pervade our physical form? One very strange area of the paranormal seems to suggest the latter, and involves the odd phenomenon of transplanted organs somehow imbuing the recipients with fragments or pieces of the deceased donor. In these cases it seems as if something has not only survived death, but has managed to inhabit these organs to be passed on into a new person, influencing their lives and even giving them new memories, and it has become quite a medical mystery that makes us question our own nature and which does not seem to have a satisfactory answer in sight.
One of the most common ways these odd anomalies take form is with the organ recipient developing strange desires, cravings, and interests that they had never had before. In one such case in 2008, 47-year-old Claire Sylvia became the first woman in New England to receive a full heart and lung transplant, and in the wake of the operation she found that her tastes had changed dramatically. She began to have cravings for beer, which she had never drunk, as well as for a whole slew of foods that she had never eaten or cared for before the operation, in particular an overwhelming desire to eat McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, which she had never liked before. Oddly, she would have a series of strange dreams through all of this, in which she had a vision of a young, thin man she called “Tim L.” The dreams were incredibly, vividly realistic, to the point that she began to suspect that it was perhaps the actual image of the organ donor she was seeing. According to her, she would find out that the donor for her new organs was an 18-year-old man named Timothy Lamirande, who had died in a motorcycle accident on the way home from a McDonalds and was found with a bag of chicken McNuggets in his pocket.
Indeed, food seems to be a common theme with many of these cases, the tastes of the donor somehow transferred into the recipient of the organs, and the list of these particular cases goes on and on. There is the 26-year-old from Battersea, London, who received a new kidney and also a love of beer, something he had loathed before, heart transplant patient David Waters developed an irrational craving for a snack called Burger Rings, which his donor had apparently loved, and there is the doctor who hated avocados but loved them after receiving an organ donation. Besides food, it is also common for people who have had organ transplants to develop new interests, affinities, and hobbies, even new skills. One such person is Sharron Coghlan, 45, who found that not only her tastes in food, but also her interests in music, books, and movies drastically changed after an operation to receive a new kidney, something she blames on cellular memory coming over from her donor. She says:
I didn’t just get my donor’s kidney I also got his taste for food and his love of reading and other habits. I’m living proof that when you donate organs, part of your personality also lives on in the other person. As I recovered, I realised I’d inherited some of my donor’s likes and dislikes. The chick flicks and books I’d loved, I suddenly couldn’t stand. Instead, I began reading war books and historical biographies. My interests seemed more manly. Prior to surgery I loved seafood. Now the thought of it made me ill. Instead I craved brown bread, mustard and cheese. It was like my tastebuds had been swapped over as well. I went online and discovered cellular memory. Some doctors think it happens, others don’t. I am proof it does.
This has happened across a range of cases. One is a 47-year-old white foundry worker, who received the heart of a 17-year-old male who had been very fond of classical music and was a violin player before being killed in a car accident. The organ recipient claims that after his operation he has developed a keen interest in classical music, a genre he had never liked before. There is also heart transplant patient Sean Bird, who had never cooked before, but found himself loving cooking and doing it for his family after the surgery, even finding himself to be uncommonly good at it. Business man Bill Wohl, 64, had always been overweight and out of shape, and in no way interested in sports or the outdoors until he underwent an operation to get a new heart. The donor had been an avid athlete, and this seems to have crossed over to Wohl, as he found himself suddenly fitness obsessed, getting himself in astounding shape and going on to compete in various competitions, becoming a medal-winning swimmer, cyclist and runner. Spookier still is that the donor had liked the singer Sade, who Wohl had become inexplicably obsessed with after his transplant despite having never really cared for her before.
Perhaps even stranger than these cases are those in which the organ recipient has found their personality fundamentally changed in some profound way. In many of these cases the phenomenon manifests itself in changes in mood, demeanor, personality, and emotions, and one is the case of a 29-year-old man named Simon Cooper, from Enfield, Middlesex, in England, who received a liver transplant due to cystic fibrosis after years of waiting for a donor on a waiting list. The donor would turn out to have been an 18-year-old girl, and the operation was a success, at least physically. In the days after his recovery, Simon found that he would freely and without thinking use copious foul language and swearing when he talked, something he had never done before and which was quite against his normal character. He has said of this:
I’d never sworn before. My mum Angela had drilled the importance of good manners into me, so she was shocked. And so was I. She assumed it was the painkillers. But a few weeks later I was still swearing with every other word. Mum said she’d read that transplanted organs could change your personality. I think it’s happened to me. And 13 years later, I still can’t control my tongue. Luckily, it hasn’t affected my job prospects or my love life. But it does make me wonder about the girl who saved my life.
Even more dramatic is the case of a 47-year-old man who received a new heart from a donor who had been a 14-year-old girl who had died in a freak gymnastics accident. The recipient of the heart would undergo a profound change in personality after the operation, with the normally serious and reserved older man becoming overcome with a youthful, almost childish exuberance, and had the tendency to break out in awkward giggles, something the donor had apparently been prone to doing. It got to the point where the man’s brother would say, “He acts like a kid, even when we’re bowling, he yells and jumps around like a fool. He’s got this weird laugh now. It’s a girl’s laugh and when we tell him that he doesn’t care.”
If this isn’t all odd enough already, the rabbit hole gets somewhat deeper in cases where not only personality traits or tastes seem to have been transferred with an organ, but actual memories as well, with organ recipients gaining strange, alien memories that seem to have come from the donor. One case of this involves a 5-year-old boy called Daryl, who was the recipient of another 3-year-old boy’s heart, the boy having died after falling from a window. Daryl did not know this, but he began talking about how he kept seeing a younger boy in his dreams called “Timmy,” who had told him he had been hurt badly in a fall. At the time, even Daryl’s parents didn’t know anything about the donor, but when they found out more information they were in for a spooky surprise, of which Daryl’s father says:
Daryl never knew the name of his donor or his age. We didn’t know, either, until recently. We just learned that the boy who died had fallen from a window. We didn't even know his age until now. Daryl had it about right. Probably just a lucky guess or something, but he got it right. What is spooky, though, is that he not only got the age right and some idea of how he died, he got the name right. The boy’s name was Thomas, but for some reason his immediate family called him “Tim.”
Making it even eerier is that Daryl had used to like the Power Rangers but was afraid of them after the surgery, odd considering that “Tim” had apparently fallen from the window after reaching for a Power Ranger figure up on a high shelf. Another intriguing case is that of French actress Charlotte Valandrey, who in 2003 had a heart transplant after being diagnosed as HIV positive. She would write in her book Love In The Blood, that after the operation she began experiencing various phenomena she could not explain, such as intense feelings of Déjà vu when she visited certain places, especially in India, even knowing details of places she had never been, as well as relentless nightmares of being in a car crash, this which would prove to be consistent with her donor’s life experiences and death.
There is also the case of a 56-year-old college professor who received a new heart that had belonged to a policeman. While talking to the wife of the donor, who he had previously known nothing about other than his age, the professor mentioned that he often had his thoughts intruded upon by visions of a white flash, which were persistent and sometimes even kept him from sleeping. These flashes were typically accompanied by an intense burning sensation in the skin of his face, and while he had written this off as some sort of weird side effect of his surgery or meds, it might have been something more. This was rather eerie, because as the wife would explain, her husband had died from being shot in the face at close range, meaning his last glimpse of this world would have been the muzzle flash and its heat. Coincidence or something more?
Yet another case is that of a 19-year old woman who was plagued by many oddities after her heart transplant. Not only did her tastes and hobbies completely change, but the once gay woman was now suddenly straight, but she also had recurring episodes in which she felt a strong impact in her chest region and upper body. This would become pretty weird when she later found out that the donor had been a straight woman who had died in a car accident, her body thrown with lethal force against the steering column. The woman would say of her predicament:
When I got my new heart, two things happened to me. First, almost every night, and still sometimes now, I actually feel the accident my donor had. I can feel the impact in my chest. It slams into me, but my doctor said everything looks fine. Also, I hate meat now. I can’t stand it. I was McDonald’s biggest money-maker, and now meat makes me throw up. Actually, whenever I smell it, my heart starts to race. But that’s not the big deal. My doctor said that’s just due to my medicines. I couldn’t tell him, but what really bothers me is that I’m engaged to be married now. He’s a great guy and we love each other. The sex is terrific. The problem is, I’m gay. At least, I thought I was. After my transplant, I’m not… I don’t think, anyway...I’m sort of semi- or confused gay. Women still seem attractive to me, but my boyfriend turns me on; women don’t. I have absolutely no desire to be with a woman. I think I got a gender transplant.
A very dramatic case orbits an 8-year-old girl with a faulty heart, who finally was able to receive a new one from a donor. It turns out that the donor had been a 10-year-old girl who had been brutally murdered, the killer never apprehended. The recipient had no way of knowing this, but she began to have dreams and visions of places she had never been and people she had never seen, including the face of a man that was always attacking her. The girl was brought in to see a psychiatrist, who was so intrigued by the details given by the girl that he began making meticulous notes on what she said she saw during these episodes and even having a sketch done of the threatening man she kept seeing. When it became clear that the donor had been murdered it all became even more curious, as the little girl seemed to know the time of the murder, the place, the weapon used, even what clothes the killer wore. Despite it being from a little girl who had just seen these things in dreams and visions, it was compelling enough that the information was given to police, which incredibly ended up helping them find the perpetrator and arrest him.
How is it that these people have developed these strange personality traits, quirks, and even apparent memories after receiving their organ transplants? Is there somehow something, some part of the donor woven into these organs and living on in the new body, or is this something else? There have been many ideas put forward over the years, such as this is some sort of spiritual attachment, but the main one is a theory called "cellular memory," which proposes that our blood and organs hold some essence of us, indeed even retaining hints of our very being and memories. This basically puts out the notion that even a part of us transferred into another has the potential to allow a part of us to live on, not only our physical organ, but some fragment of what we are as well, which can manifest in a variety of ways and lingers on as a vestigial piece of what we once were in a new host.
While very interesting, the phenomenon of “cellular memory” is poorly understood, mostly taken by the mainstream as a kind of pseudoscience, and there are certainly skeptics of the idea. One problem is that not everyone who undergoes an organ transplant experiences such anomalies, and indeed the few studies that have been attempted to look into it have found that only around 6 % of organ transplant recipients have this kind of experience. It does not help that the evidence for cellular memory is anecdotal and circumstantial, with possible mundane explanations such as side effects of medication or their emotionally sensitive situation making them vulnerable to subconscious cues or overheard information that cause a sort of placebo effect, all of this merely in their minds. Yet how does this explain vivid memories of the dead coming back to haunt the living recipients of these organs? No one really knows, and it has become a rather odd and little explored corner of the paranormal realm.