A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: cellular memory

14 Jan 2009
Orlacs Hände is actually from 1924, not 1935 as stated.

As I wrote in my article on Mad Love (1935) in Horror 101: The A-List of Horror Films and Monster Movies Vol. 1, the idea of recipients becoming like donors being portrayed in films goes back at least to The Doctor's Experiment, The Monkey Man, and The Professor's Secret, all from 1908, which involved people acquiring characteristics of primates by glandular injection or transplant.

I suspect, as you do, that these ideas come from the earlier idea that one obtains characteristics (strength, agility, virility, etc.) from what one eats or cannibalizes. I don't know what that's called, though.

reply: I call it magical thinking and belief in sympathetic magic.

Cellular memory is for some tied to repressed memory therapy. Alice Miller, for example, believes that the body remembers everything the brain forgets or misremembers and that recovered memory therapies tease the information not out of the subconscious mind, but the body. This can be seen in particular in her book The Body Never Lies [:The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting], but here's an example from her website in the essay "Depression: Compulsive Self-Deception," she wrote in relevant part about her abstract paintings uncovering her childhood abuse "it was my hand that did this, as it obviously knew the whole story and was only waiting until I was ready to feel with the little child I once was." This is a fascinating statement. Her hand (and presumably other body parts, down to the cellular level) recalls EVERYTHING about her life (and "obviously" so!). Her hand can access the incorrect or incomplete memories in her brain and compare them to what the hand remembers. The hand can gauge the intellectual and emotional readiness of the brain to be told what "really" happened; presumably it performs this check on a regular basis until it finally judges the brain ready. Then the hand is capable of communicating with the brain, internally (through a feeling or manifestation of a physical problem, etc.) or externally (such as through painting). Additionally, whenever we see, hear, taste, smell, or touch something, that information must be simultaneously sent to separately both the brain and all parts of the body (since the brain can not be trusted to send out the information to all part of the body, since it lies). If what she wrote means something other than what it seems to me to say, I'd like to know what!


Chris Philippo


28 Oct 1999 
A speculation for the cellular memory page. As you will notice from my e-mail address and my signature line, I work for the National Marrow Donor Program. As such, I'm familiar with the business of bone marrow transplantation (BMT) using unrelated donors. It's known in the BMT community that a donor's allergies can be transferred to the marrow recipient (see citation, below). Some marrow recipients also say that their food preferences have changed post-transplant, but this has not to my knowledge been reported in the medical literature. You speculate that the origin of the cellular memory belief may be the chitlin joke told in 'Brian's Song' or in L. Ron Hubbard's 'engrams.' May I suggest that a more likely origin may be the allergy transfer phenomenon I refer to?

Now, a bone marrow transplant is much different from a solid organ transplant, because in a marrow transplant one is in effect transplanting the entire immune system of one person to another, so it's not surprising that allergies are also sometimes transferred. An in any event, this phenomenon is much different from the idea that transplanted organs contain the coding of life, but since you are speculating about the possible beginnings of this wacky idea, I suggest that this phenomenon encountered in BMT may be a more likely starting point.


Agosti JM, Sprenger JD, Lum LG, et al. Transfer of allergen-specific IgE-mediated hypersensitivity with allogeneic bone marrow transplantation. N Engl J Med, 1988; 319(25): 1623-28.

Tim Walker
Medical/Scientific Writer National Marrow Donor Program 

08 Oct 1999
If you're looking for a film source for such things, you can go back much farther, to "Mad Love" aka "The Hands of Orlac", starring Peter Lorre. In it, the insane Dr. Gogol (Lorre) transplants the hands of a murderer onto pianist Stephan Orlac (Colin Clive), and convinces Orlac that the murderer's personality is taking over. Orlac finds that he has abilities he never had before -- such as knife-throwing -- related to the murderer's profession.

James Redekop

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