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Hearts, Transplants & Chinese Medicine!

I recently read that the personality of heart transplant patients can change in ways that reflect the personality of their organ donor. In fact there are even reports of patients experiencing memories that seem to come from their donors. While such occurrences are rare they are apparently common enough that patients are sometimes warned of the possibility by their consultants. As soon as I started reading about this I wanted to know more and I wanted to see if Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM) may provide a way to make sense of this.

Conventional wisdom suggests that personality and memory are associated with the brain (although no one has yet been able to locate memories in the brain) and so conventional wisdom can make little sense of reports of personality changes following heart transplants. For instance Dr John Wallwork, a former director of transplant services in the NHS has said that it’s impossible for a physical organ to change your personality, your memories or how you feel. However he offers no explanation for the experience reported by some transplant patients of exactly those sorts of changes. But if you believe something to be impossible there’s little reason to look closer and so there’s little research into this, with many of the reports being anecdotal (I’ve added a few at the end of this post.) So what does Chinese Medicine have to add?

In Chinese Medicine the Heart isn’t simply understood as the organ that pumps our blood, although it’s that to. According to one of the foundational texts of Chinese Medicine, the 2000 year old NeiJing SuWen, the Heart is:

The Fire at the centre of our being, from which [our] Spirit radiates

There are more functions of the Heart listed in that text. It is also said to ‘control the blood vessels’ (including pumping the blood), it ‘manifests in the complexion’, ‘controls sweating’ and ‘opens into the tongue’ and so has a link to speech. That’s a link our culture recognises when we use the phrase ‘speaking from the heart’ to describe someone articulating the deepest truth they can perceive. With the above quote to guide us it would be easy to get lost here in discussions about ‘spirit’, what it might be, if its real etc but I don’t want to do that. I think the more relevant (and more overlooked) part of the quote above is that the Heart is the Fire as the centre of our being.

Traditional East Asian Medicine understands the body in terms of Qi, which is often translated as energy. Daniel Keown, who trained in both Western medicine and acupuncture, has suggested that this isn’t a great translation. He suggest Qi could be understood as energy that is ‘intelligent and organised’, that its energy with a purpose, that seeks to organise things in a certain way. I think this is a good way to think about that Fire at the centre of our being. We all have an energy that drives us forward, that pushes us to achieve things in the world, to manifest the most authentic version of ourselves we can.

Perhaps the place we see this sort of thing most clearly is in elite sports people, where the drive to manifest the best version of their talents is apparent and obvious. For most of us the demands of life, the need to earn a living, compromise with partners etc limits the extent to which our Spirit can radiate out into the world and so the fire at the centre of our being is dimmed. Interestingly many of the East Asian cultivational practices, be that Nei Gong, Tantra, Kundalini etc explicitly aim to build that ‘Fire at the centre of our being’ in order that Spirit may more clearly manifest. But if we accept that that energy, that Fire at the centre of our being really is there and if it’s associated with the heart, then might it be possible that under certain conditions it might be transferred along with the physical organ in a heart transplant operation?

Of course that raises a very obvious question. If that energy exists and is associated with the heart then why do so few transplant patients experience personality change? Another way of asking this would be to ask what are the conditions necessary for such a change to occur? I have no answer to these questions and as I said there isn’t much research into personality changes following heart transplants. However there are other, better researched, phenomena that suggest the heart is much more than a simple pump.

Studies have shown that people in stable long term relationships have a 14% lower chance of having a heart attack. While those in a stable loving relationship are three times more likely to still be alive 15 years after a heart attack than those without such a relationship. If such relationships do carry a health risk its that following the sudden death of a long term partner the surviving partner is 21 times more likely to have a heart attack the following day. It seems you really can die of a broken heart. I think these studies are interesting because they suggest the Heart may indeed be the seat of our emotions. As for dying of a broken heart, could it be that these are people lost their reason for living and the fire at the centre of their being simply went out?

As ever in Chinese medicine its the lines between the physical and the psycho-spiritual aspects of ourselves are blurred. In Chinese Medicine the Heart is understood to have physical functions that would make sense to the most sceptical scientist but is also understood to be central to our personality, to our sense of who we are and what we’re doing in the world. Perhaps those are two world views that will never be reconciled but the more I’ve studied Chinese medicine, the more time I’ve spent in clinic the more I’ve come to believe that even its stranger ideas are deserving of careful study.

Cases of Personality Change in Heart Transplant Patients.

Case 1:

A 47 year-old white male foundry worker, who received the heart of a 17 year-old black male student, discovered after the operation that he had developed a fascination for classical music. He reasoned that since his donor would have preferred ‘rap’ music, his newfound love for classical music could not possibly have anything to do with his new heart. As it turned out, the donor actually loved classical music, and died “hugging his violin case” on the way to his violin class (2).

Case 2:

An eight year-old girl, who received the heart of a murdered ten year-old girl, began having recurring vivid nightmares about the murder. Her mother arranged a consultation with a psychiatrist who after several sessions concluded that she was witnessing actual physical incidents. They decided to call the police who used the detailed descriptions of the murder (the time, the weapon, the place, the clothes he wore, what the little girl he killed had said to him) given by the little girl to find and convict the man in question (1).

Case 3:

This story comes from, 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 (2).

Case 4:

Claire Sylvia, a former professional dancer, received a heart from an 18-year-old boy who died in a motorcycle accident. After the surgery, she started craving beer and KFC fried chicken, stuff she had never liked before. “My daughter said I even walked like a man.” Wanting to understand the changes she was experiencing, she sought out the family of her donor—a teenaged boy who died in a motorcycle accident—and learned that these foods were his favorites. (3)

  1. Pearsall, Paul. The Heart’s Code: tapping the wisdom and power of our heart energy. New York; Broadway Books, 1999.

  2. “The Art Transplant” The Daily Mail March 31,2006.


Bruce Bell is a fully trained acupuncturist working from clinics in Midsomer Norton and Keynsham

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