There have been perplexing reports of organ transplant receivers claiming that they seem to have inherited the memory, experiences and emotions of their deceased donors, causing quirky changes in their personality. We will present a few cases and then discuss a possible explanation in the light of the occult insights of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa.
Cases of personality changes due to organ transplants
Before we discuss the cases, it is pertinent to note that apart from miscellaneous information such as gender, age and cause of death, profiles of organ donors are traditionally kept concealed from their recipients for psychological reasons. The cases discussed here came to light after mysterious behavioral symptoms resulted in renunciation of the traditional donor-recipient anonymity.
Case 1: On May 29, 1988, an American woman named Claire Sylvia received a heart transplant at a hospital in Yale, Connecticut. She was told that her donor was a eighteen-year old male from Maine, USA who had just died in a motorcycle accident. Soon after the operation, Sylvia declared that she felt like drinking beer, something she wasn’t particularly fond of. Later, she observed an uncontrollable urge to eat chicken nuggets and found herself wanting to visit the popular chicken restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken. She also began craving for green peppers which was something she hadn’t particularly liked before. Sylvia also began having recurring dreams about a mystery man named Tim L., who she had a feeling was her donor. On a cue from someone, she searched for obituaries in newspapers from Maine, and was able to identify the young man whose heart she had received. His name had indeed been Tim. After visiting Tim’s family, she discovered that he used to love chicken nuggets, green peppers and beer. These experiences are documented in her book “A Change of Heart” by Claire Sylvia. 
Case 2: This story comes from an article in the Daily Mail . William Sheridan, a retired catering manager with poor drawing skills, suddenly developed artistic talents after a heart transplant operation. He was amazed to discover that the man who donated his new heart had been a keen artist.
Case 3: A forty seven-year-old Caucasian male, who received a heart from an African-American teenager, was puzzled to find in himself a newfound taste for classical music. He presumed that the donor must have liked rap music and dismissed the idea that the organ transplant had anything to do with his changed personality. He was surprised to learn that the donor had been an avid violin player, and had died while clutching his violin case to his chest. 
Case 4: An eight-year-old girl, who received the heart of a ten-year-old girl who had been murdered, began having recurring vivid nightmares about the murder. Her mother arranged a consultation with a psychiatrist and after several sessions, the girl’s psychiatrist decided she was experiencing actual physical incidents. They decided to call the police who used the detailed descriptions of the murderer given by the little girl to find and convict the man in question. 
Paul Pearsall(1942-2007) and his colleagues, Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek, have collected the accounts of 74 patients, 23 of whom were heart transplant recipients. These reports have been published in [3, 4, 5]. You can read one of the reports at http://www.paulpearsall.com/info/press/3.html
Skeptics might put forth one of the following explanations for this phenomenon:
- The heart is a vital organ and a new heart can breathe new power into the body and change the personality.
- Heart transplant patients may be subconsciously influenced by the information provided or overheard during their hospital stay. Incidentally, this has been dubbed the “hospital grapevine theory”.
These theories may explicate some cases but not Case 4, where the organ recipient’s dreams led to the conviction of the murderer.
Explanations verging on the mystical
Some scientists have proposed the concept of “cellular memory” to explain the transference of memory in organ transplants. They have said that the mind is not just in the brain but is in fact active in every cell of the body. Paul Pearsall proposed that immunosuppressant drugs injected during transplants could conceivably lower the threshold in patients to allow them to register cellular memories which were potentially stored in the transplanted organs . Pharmacologist Candace Pert proposed “Molecules of emotion” as a sort of biochemical correlate of emotion which is stored in every cell . In Claire Sylvia’s book A Change of Heart, a spiritual medium speculates that these experiences were caused because the donor’s spirit was still attached to the earth and had not yet moved to it’s abode in the higher subtle worlds .
These hypotheses are aligned with some of the occult insights offered by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on the nature of memory and the process of death. Regarding the concept of “cellular memory”, this is what Sri Aurobindo had to say:
Disciple : What is memory ? Is it a mental faculty ?
Sri Aurobindo : Memory is everywhere. All that one is conscious of or not, is recorded in the “Prana“, the basic stuff of consciousness. But one remembers only that which one has attentively heard and fixed in his mind. But generally these impressions are received by the “Prana” and immediately they sink into the subconscious, or the subliminal consciousness, or whatever you like to call it.
There is the recorded instance of the servant girl of a famous French scholar of Hebrew. She used to hear, while at work, her master repeating the Bible in Hebrew. To her it was meaningless gibberish. Then when she was in an abnormal condition she repeated her master’s speech exactly, with the same accents and without a mistake. And evidently she knew nothing of the language – that is, the mind did not understand anything of it. But all the time it was there recorded in the subconscious being. Even the soles of our feet have got a memory of their own.…we have divided the being into the mental, vital and physical. But when we speak of the mental, we take the mind working on its own plane, so to say. But all the parts are interconnected and the mind is working from above down right up to the lowest plane of consciousness and so it is with every principle. 
But “cellular memory” may not explain everything, because not every organ seems to induce a memory transfer; as far as I know, people who receive donated corneas have not reported any such side-effects. Therefore, one has to consider the possibility that the the spirit of the dead donor, or various vital sheath fragments which are let loose after death, continue to cling to the organs and thereby influence the recipient’s mind. Given the fact that organ transplants are always done within hours after doctors have diagnosed outer signs of physical death, it is of relevance to note the Mother Mirra Alfassa’s observation that it takes upto seven days for the soul to evacuate the body. Perhaps it is the premature organ harvesting which induces the memory transfer from the donor to the receiver ? This was her observation on the process of death:
In the physical form there is the ‘spirit of the form,’ and that spirit of the form persists for a time, even when outwardly the person is said to be dead. And as long as the spirit of the form persists, the body isn’t destroyed. In ancient Egypt they had that knowledge; they knew that if they prepared the body in a certain way, the spirit of the form wouldn’t go away and the body wouldn’t be dissolved. 
In another conversation, she expatiated on death and cremation:
…the doctors observe all the outer signs, then they declare you dead, but you’re still in your body!…it’s probably during this period that people are ‘resuscitated,’ as they say, for they have not left their bodies, they are not really dead, though the heart may give every appearance of having stopped.
People in India are in too much of a hurry to burn the dead, sometimes they burn them alive! … They should wait for there’s a consciousness of the form, a life of the form assumed by the cells, which takes seven days to come out. And that is why sometimes the body makes abrupt movements when burned – people say it’s mechanical. It’s not mechanical, I know it’s not.
So I don’t like this habit of burning people very much….I think they do it here (apart from entirely sanitary considerations in the case of people who have died from nasty diseases), here in India, mainly because they are very afraid of all these little entities that come from desires, impulses – things which are dispersed in the air and which make ‘ghosts’ and all kinds of things. All desires, all attachments, all those things are like pieces that break off (each one goes its own way, you see), then these pieces gain strength in the surrounding atmosphere, and when they can fasten on to someone, they vampirize him. Then they keep on trying to satisfy their desires 
Therefore, it is possible that these fragments of the donor’s vital sheath, which are imbued with the living memories of impulses and desires, attach themselves to the organs and find a new home in the organ transplant recipient, thereby inducing the memory transfer. Here is a note that Sri Aurobindo wrote to a disciple regarding the vital sheath fragments:
The fragments [of a dead person] are not of the inner being (who goes on his way to the psychic world) but of his vital sheath which falls away after death. These can join for birth the vital of some other Jiva(soul) who is being born or they can be used by a vital being to enter a body in process of birth and partly possess it for the satisfaction of its propensities. The junction can also take place after birth.
Documentaries on Cellular Memory and Organ transplants
- Claire Sylvia. A Change of Heart: A Memoir. (New York: Warner Books, 1997).
- The Art Transplant. Daily Mail, Mar 31 2006. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-381589/The-art-transplant.html (Accessed Jan 29, 2011)
- Paul Pearsall. The Heart’s Code: Tapping the Wisdom and Power of Our Heart Energy (New York: Broadway Books, 1999).
- Paul Pearsall, et al. Organ Transplants and Cellular Memories. Nexus Magazine, Volume 12, Number 3 (April – May 2005).
- Paul Pearsall, et al. Changes in Heart Transplant Recipients that Parallel the Personalities of their Donors, Journal of Near-Death Studies, vol. 20, no. 3, Spring 2002.
- Candace Pert. Molecules of Emotion : Why You Feel the Way You Feel (New York: Scribner, 1997).
- A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Second Series (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1982), p 235.
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 5, (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1979), p 136.
- The Mother. Mother’s Agenda, vol. 1 (New York: Institute for Evolutionary Research, 1979), May 28, 1960.
- Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga, SABCL volume 22. (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970), p 446.
- The existence of vital signs during sleep or coma
- Sleep and Dreams
- The brain is not the mind as per Yoga psychology
- Embodied cognition in Yoga psychology
- Explaining out-of-body and near-death experiences
- Sleep disorders : somnambulism and somniloquy
- The action of subliminal memory
- Similarity between Neurological and Yogic models of human memory
- Sri Aurobindo on synchronicity
- Ghosts explained