I wonder if anyone saw this programme on Channel 4 last night. It reported a controversial theory that the heart may play a role in forming emotions, personalities and memories, based on the experiences of some heart transplant patients. This radical possibility clearly challenges the conventional textbook account of the heart as just a pump, and embraces the metaphorical vision of the heart which has featured in literature and the arts for centuries. The first person to report this was a heart transplant recipient in Boston twenty years ago who reported a sudden penchant for beer, green peppers and KFC nuggets, later found to be firm favourites of her young male donor. Strict confidentiality regulations meant that she could not have had access to this information, nor the name of her donor which she correctly gleaned from a dream.
However I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the cases. One transplant patient who developed a love of classical music was found to have received a heart from an American violin-playing teenager. I couldn’t help feeling that if the recipient had developed an interest in hip hop or rock, this too could have resonated with the donor’s musical interests. Another placid woman received the heart of a boxer, and subsequently reported violent tendencies. Again, it seems far too convenient to attribute this simply to the stereotype of a violent boxer. A particularly fanciful example was a man who became a prolific writer of poetry, only to receive a letter from his donor’s family containing lines of verse.
One thing seems apparent; the quagmire of confounding factors. Clearly a major medical procedure such as a heart transplant is likely to induce a degree of introspection and promote some lifestyle changes. Perhaps just the notion itself of having a heart transplant is sufficient to drive changes in personality, just as surviving a car crash may be life affirming for some, or traumatic for others. The effects of immunosuppressive medication in altering moods have also been implicated. However, this may not explain all of the reports, nor the finding that in a blinded study of 70 transplant patients that felt a change in personality, 10 matched their donors’ closely. The discovery of neuronal populations in the heart has also led to talk of a ‘little brain’ and ‘heart intelligence’, and the possibility that some memories may be stored in the heart. The last word finally went to a Prof Paul Pearsall, one of the strongest proponents of a sentient heart. Seemingly bursting from the pressure of keeping a lid on the puns for the last hour or so, he finally succumbs: ‘We better wake up and have a heart’.