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cellular memory

"The idea that transplanting organs transfers the coding of life experiences is unimaginable."  --Dr. John Schroeder,  Stanford Medical Center

Cellular memory is the speculative notion that human body cells contain clues to our personalities, tastes, and histories, independently of either genetic codes or brain cells. The magical thinking of our ancestors may account for the first beliefs in something like cellular memory. Eating the heart of a courageous enemy killed in battle would give one strength. The practice of eating various animal organs associated with different virtues such as longevity or sexual prowess* is one of the more common forms of magical thinking among our earliest ancestors. Even today, some people think that eating brains will make them smarter.

The idea of cellular memory has been used in several films. For example, Les Mains d'Orlac (1920) by Maurice Renard  (1875-1939) is built around a story of a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident and is given the hands of a murderer in a transplant operation. The pianist then develops an urge to kill. Several variations of Renard's story have made it into film, including Orlacs Hände, a 1924 silent Austrian film, Mad Love (1935), Les Mains D'Orlac (1960), and Hands of a Stranger (1962). A similar story is told by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (authors of Vertigo) in et mon tout est un homme (1965), which was made into the film Body Parts in 1991. A prison psychiatrist loses an arm in an accident and is given the arm of an executed psycho-killer. The arm then develops a mind of its own. In the film Brian's Song, the 26-year old Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan) is dying of cancer when Gayle Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams), his friend and Chicago Bears teammate, visits him in the hospital. Piccolo had been given a transfusion and he asks Sayers if he had donated any blood. When Sayers says yes, Piccolo remarks that that explains his craving for chitlins.

In real life, Claire Sylvia, a heart-lung transplant recipient, explained her sudden craving for beer by noting that her donor was an 18-year-old male who died in a motorcycle accident. She's even written a book about it (A Change of Heart), which was made into a movie for television in 2002 called "Heart of a Stranger," starring Jane Seymour.

Dr. Larry Dossey doesn't accept the cellular memory explanation for Claire Sylvia's sudden craving for beer. He thinks that the most likely explanation "is that the consciousness of the donor had fundamentally united with the consciousness of the recipient enabling the recipient to gain information from the donor." Perhaps, he mused, organ recipients enter into a realm of consciousness where information about another person can be accessed through the Universal Mind.* Perhaps, but is there a simpler explanation?

James Van Praagh, on the other hand, is quoted by Claire Sylvia as saying: "Donated organs often come from young people who were killed in car or motorcycle accidents, and who died quickly. Because their spirits often feel they haven't completed their time on earth, they sometimes attach themselves to another person. There may be things that your donor hadn't completed in the physical world, which his spirit still wanted to experience."* James claims to get his information from the spirit world. Unfortunately, we have no way of validating his claims.

Paul Pearsall, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Pleasure Prescription and The Heart's Code,  goes much further in his speculations than that certain cravings are passed from donor to recipient in organ transplants. Pearsall claims that "the heart has a coded subtle knowledge connecting us to everything and everyone around us. That aggregate knowledge is our spirit and soul. . . .The heart is a sentient, thinking, feeling, communicating organ." He claims "donated cells remained energetically and nonlocally connected with their donor." How he knows this is anybody's guess.

Sylvia Browne teaches a course for alternative education programs Healing Your Body, Mind & Soul. In one two-hour session Ms. Browne will teach anyone "how to directly access the genetic code within each cell, manipulate that code and reprogram the body to a state of normalcy." Anyone with a little bit of knowledge of genetics would recognize that these claims are preposterous, yet when the course was offered in Sacramento, it was sold out.

L. Ron Hubbard speculated in Dianetics that cellular memory might explain how engrams work.

Dr. Candace Pert, a professor in the department of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University, believes "the mind is not just in the brain, but also exists throughout the body."  Dr. Pert is an expert in peptide pharmacology. "The mind and body communicate with each other through chemicals known as peptides," she claims. "These peptides are found in the brain as well as in the stomach, muscles and all of our major organs. I believe that memory can be accessed anywhere in the peptide/receptor network. For instance, a memory associated with food may be linked to the pancreas or liver, and such associations can be transplanted from one person to another."* The evidence for these claims has yet to be produced and Pert's notions have not found favor with neuroscientists who study the nature of memory. I especially await the evidence for the holographic mind that exists throughout the body. How does she know that it doesn't extend beyond the body? Perhaps it goes all the way out to Larry Dossey's Universal Mind. It's not at all clear what Pert means by 'mind'. In any case, Dr. Pert doesn't explain why we don't seem to be affected by the memories of the animals we eat. Perhaps their peptides get destroyed by cooking.

Attilio D’Alberto has found that he can easily reconcile traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), cellular memory, and quantum physics in one holistic metaphysical hodgepodge. You've got your yin organs and your yang organs, your E=mc2, your sympathetic magic (each organ has an associated emotion, spirit, planet, etc.), your quantum level of subatomic particles and frozen energy fields with their different frequencies. "If a heart is transplanted, the memory at the cellular level and at the spiritual level, the Shen, will be moved with the donated organ." However, it seems clear that he is just guessing.

Gary Schwartz claims that he has 70 cases where he believes transplant recipients have inherited the traits of their donors. He believes this because the "stories are compelling and consistent."* He also believes he understands the mechanism by which cellular memory works:

When the organ is placed in the recipient, the information and energy stored in the organ is passed on to the recipient. The theory applies to any organ that has cells that are interconnected. They could be kidneys, liver and even muscles.

How he knows this is a mystery. If it is true that donors pass on personality traits and personal tastes, then it might be unwise for people to get organ transplants from other species, such as the baboon. Again, if all cells are carrying information that can be passed on in transplant, why wouldn't this information be transferred when we eat fruits, vegetables, or any other living thing. Shouldn't we be releasing into our bloodstream the magic of a living thing's history with each bite we take? Schwartz calls his belief a "theory," but it is not a theory in the sense that scientists use the term.* It would be more accurate to call it an untestable speculative model.

An organ transplant is a life-altering experience, literally. In many cases, it might well be compared to the near-death experience since many transplants are done only if death is imminent. It should not be surprising to find that many transplant recipients change significantly. Some of these changes might easily be interpreted as being consistent with the donor's likes and dislikes or behaviors. Recipients would want to know about their donor and might consciously or unconsciously be influenced by stories about the person who now "lives inside them."

Collecting stories to validate a hypothesis is a risky business. Stories of transplant recipients that don't seem to exhibit memories from their donor don't prove that they aren't there but those stories are selected out anyway. Stories that do seem to exhibit donor memories don't prove cellular memory but collecting a bunch of them could lead one to see a pattern that isn't really there. Collecting such stories may simply prove that the researcher is good at confirming his or her bias. The validation process becomes more complicated when one considers that many organ recipients will give in to magical thinking and "feel" the presence of the deceased donor within them. The recipient's subjective validation may be driven by a desire to prove the belief or to please the donor's family, the doctor, or a medical attendant who may encourage the belief. Furthermore, now that the idea of cellular memory is being promoted in books and on television (the Discovery Health Channel, for example), there will be a problem of making sure that stories aren't contaminated.

Science should be moving us forward, bringing about a better understanding of how phenomena work. Scientists like Gary Schwartz and Paul Pearsall introduce mysticism and magical thinking into the mix, which is very attractive to many New Age healers because it supports their spiritual leanings. However, such thinking does not advance science; it takes it back to an earlier time, a time when the world was dominated by magical powers. It dresses that world in scientific-sounding jargon about energies and quantum physics, but it does little to advance our understanding of anything and it will continue to fail to convince the scientific community at large, which has a higher standard of evidence, of its speculations.

Here is what Jeff Punch, M.D., has to say about cellular memory:

There are several possible logical explanations for why people might assume characteristics of their donors: Side effects of transplant medications may make people feel weird and different from before the transplant. For example, prednisone makes people hungry:

The recipient of an organ transplant develops a love of pastry and finds out the person that donated their organ loved pastry as well. They think there is a connection, but really it is just the prednisone making their body crave sweets.

It could also be pure coincidence:

The patient watches a TV show while recovering from a transplant that shows older adults rollerblading and decides that it looks like fun, but doesn't make a conscious decision to do anything about it because they are still recovering from the transplant. Months later they are shopping and they see rollerblades and decide to give it a try since it was something they were incapable of doing for heath reasons before the transplant. They like it and get good at it. Later they find out that the donor was a young person that liked to rollerblade. It is easy to understand how the patient and family might believe that the new organ had something to do with Mom's new-found love of rollerblading. In actuality, the only thing the new organ gave her was the health to try rollerblades. The idea came from a TV show she forgot she ever saw.

A transplant is a profound experience and the human mind is very suggestible. Medically speaking, there is no evidence that these reports are anything more than fantasy.

Even so, the stories are intriguing and may lead to some serious scientific investigation at some time in the future.

See also memory.

reader comments

further reading

Heal thyself by finger pointing The Healing Code is the brain child of naturopath Alex Loyd, whose specialty is the new science of "energy medicine." Actually, there's no "new science" here, just some old bunk....The particular offshoot of energy medicine that Loyd practises deals with "cellular memory." It seems that the underlying cause of disease, especially cancer, is the "destructive energy pattern that can be brought about by cellular memories." [new] Dr. Harriet Hall has suffered through Loyd's book. Her review is posted on Science-Based Medicine. Here's a brief overview: "the claims for The Healing Codes are unbelievable unscientific moonshine. Some people might perceive benefits from the relaxation, the illusion of control, the positive thinking, and the introspection into their problems; but it’s not realistic to think affirmations and finger exercises could cure cancer or have any objective effect on any disease. This is not a miraculous advance in healing, but merely an elaborate commercial scheme to separate soft-headed customers from their hard cash." [/new]

Jeff Punch, M.D. (transplant surgeon), University of Michigan on cellular memory

Cellular Memory by Malcolm Robinson of Strange Phenomena Investigations

Cellular Memory in Organ Transplants Leslie A. Takeuchi, BA, PTA

Decoding Traumatic Memory Patterns At The Cellular Level by Thomas R. McClaskey, D.C., C.H.T., B.C.E.T.S.

It's Not in Your Stars But in Your Cells... Cellular Memory

China selling prisoners' organs by Jill McGivering

How to Believe the Unbelievable by Mark Pendergrast (search for "body memories")

Cell memory mechanism discovered Real cellular memory has nothing to do with transplanting memories from one person to another. "Each time a cell divides the specific binding pattern of the transcription factors is erased and has to be restored in both mother and daughter cells. Previously it was unknown how this process works, but now scientists at Karolinska Institutet have discovered the importance of particular protein rings encircling the DNA and how these function as the cell's memory." Last updated 28-Apr-2015

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