Intelligent Design Medicine Mind Neuroscience

Michael Egnor: What would happen to your soul if your head were transplanted?

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Specifically, Egnor asks, if your head were transplanted, would your soul
go with it? Because a human head transplant would induce quadriplegia, many of the philosophical questions are currently theoretical — but fascinating nonetheless:

Head transplantation has not been done on humans. Not because it wouldn’t work — it would be technically easier on humans than on monkeys because humans are bigger so things would be easier to sew. It has not been done on humans because, in order to transplant a head, you must cut the spinal cord, which causes permanent paralysis. Head transplantation causes quadriplegia. There is no real medical benefit in creating a quadriplegic patient — it might preserve life but at the expense of total paralysis. This question occasionally arises in neurosurgery in a different context. The consensus is that deliberate imposition of a catastrophic neurological disability is unacceptable, even if it may save life. With rare exceptions, we don’t deliberately make people blind or paralyzed or comatose, even to prolong life.

An ethical case for head transplantation could be made in the case of an already quadriplegic patient who had multiple organ failure and who would die otherwise. This is a rare scenario.

Head transplantation is interesting from a metaphysical perspective. It’s a question that would have interested Dr. Frankenstein: Imagine that spinal cord repair were feasible and patients would not be rendered paralyzed. If heads were successfully switched, where would the souls end up? Is the soul in the brain, in the body, in both, or in neither? Two people would still exist after switching heads. But who would be who? Where would the souls go — with the brains or with the bodies?

As with so many metaphysical questions about the mind-body relationship, we need first to understand the meaning of the words we use.

Michael Egnor, “Are head transplants soul transplants?” at Mind Matters News

You may also wish to read: Your soul has no “Off” switch It’s an intriguing and important question and you may be surprised by some of the answers. (Michael Egnor)

7 Replies to “Michael Egnor: What would happen to your soul if your head were transplanted?

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Dr. Egnor mentions that, “We face this question today with organ transplants. I have a family friend who has had a heart transplant. Is her new heart hers or is it the heart of the young man from whom it was harvested?”

    In regards to that question, and to the overarching question of “What Would Happen To Your Soul If Your Head Were Transplanted?”, here are some interesting testimonials from organ transplant recipients,

    Memory transference in organ transplant recipients – April 2011
    Excerpt: Dr Pearsall has collected the accounts of seventy-three heart transplant patients, and sixty-seven other organ transplant recipients and published them. These reports have been published in (2, 3, 4). We discuss a few cases here.

    Case 1: Claire Sylvia develops desire for chicken nuggets and green peppers
    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 an 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 hadn’t particularly been fond of. Later, she observed an uncontrollable urge to eat chicken nuggets and found herself drawn to visiting the popular chicken restaurant chain, KFC. She also began craving green peppers which she hadn’t particularly liked before. Sylvia also began having recurring dreams about a mystery man named Tim L., whom she felt was the organ donor. On a cue from someone, she searched for obituaries in newspapers published 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 the book, A Change of Heart (1).

    Case 2: a foundry worker develops a taste for classical music
    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 3: murder mystery involving donor is solved by an organ recipient
    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 (2).

    Case 4: the gender transplant
    The donor was a 19 year-old woman killed in an automobile accident. The recipient was a 29 year-old woman diagnosed with cardiomyopathy secondary to endocarditis.
    The donor’s mother reported:
    “My Sara was the most loving girl. She owned and operated her own health food restaurant and scolded me constantly about not being a vegetarian. She was a great kid — wild, but great. She was into the free-love thing and had a different man in her life every few months. She was man-crazy when she was a little girl and it never stopped. She was able to write some notes to me when she was dying. She was so out of it, but she kept saying how she could feel the impact of the car hitting them. She said she could feel it going through her body.”
    The recipient reported:
    “You can tell people about this if you want to, but it will make you sound crazy. When I got my new heart, two things happened to me. First, almost every night, and still sometimes now, I actually feel the accident my donor had. I can feel the impact in my chest. It slams into me, but my doctor said everything looks fine. Also, I hate meat now. I can’t stand it. I was McDonald’s biggest money-maker, and now meat makes me throw up. Actually, whenever I smell it, my heart starts to race. But that’s not the big deal. My doctor said that’s just due to my medicines. I couldn’t tell him, but what really bothers me is that I’m engaged to be married now. He’s a great guy and we love each other. The sex is terrific. The problem is, I’m gay. At least, I thought I was. After my transplant, I’m not… I don’t think, anyway…I’m sort of semi- or confused gay. Women still seem attractive to me, but my boyfriend turns me on; women don’t. I have absolutely no desire to be with a woman. I think I got a gender transplant.”
    The recipient’s brother reported:
    “Susie’s straight now. I mean it seriously. She was gay and now her new heart made her straight. She threw out all her books and stuff about gay politics and never talks about it anymore. She was really militant about it before. She holds hands and cuddles with Steven just like my girlfriend does with me. She talks girl-talk with my girlfriend, where before she would be lecturing about the evils of sexist men. And my sister, the queen of the ‘Big Mac‘, hates meat. She won’t even have it in the house (3).

    Case 5: a catering manager develops artistic talent.
    This story comes from the British tabloid, 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 (5).

    Case 6: the living heart transplant
    Among the strangest case Paul Pearsall encountered was that of two men who shared the same heart.
    Jim (original names withheld), who was dying of bad lungs, received a heart and lung transplant from a young woman who had just died. Since Jim’s old heart was still robust, it was transplanted into another man named Fred. After this domino transplant, Fred who was formerly laid-back began exhibiting the Type A aggressive behavior of Jim. During intimate moments, Fred would call his wife “Sandy”, much to the consternation of his wife Karen. Jim’s wife’s name was Sandra. On the other hand, Jim became morose and sullen after the transplant and died a few years later. It was discovered that Jim’s donor had been a shy, soft-spoken young woman who had worked part-time in a flower shop, and had committed suicide in despair over a lost love (2).

    Cases independently investigated in Europe
    Dr. Benjamin Bunzel from the Department of Surgery at the University Hospital in Vienna has investigated the cases of forty-seven heart transplant recipients. He reports that 15 percent of his sample stated that their personality had changed due to what they felt was the life-threatening event of transplantation itself, but they did not attribute their experienced change to their donor. Six percent, or three patients, reported a distinct change of personality due to their new hearts. They added that they felt compelled to change their prior feelings and reactions to accommodate those they sensed as coming from the memories of their donor. Seventy-nine percent said that their personality had not changed in any way at all post-operatively. The patients who reported no-change employed defense mechanisms and exhibited angry and hostile reactions to questions about the possible receipt of the energy from their donor. They were often eager to change the subject and mocked the question itself (6).

    General discussion

    To put things in perspective, not all organ transplant recipients undergo personality changes. There were about 2,210 heart transplants in the USA in 2007 (7). According to a German specialist, Reiner Korfe, worldwide there are probably about 3,500 heart transplants performed every year (8).

    Dr. Pearsall has observed that heart transplant recipients seemed to be the most susceptible to personality changes. Patients who had undergone organ transplants for kidney and liver also sensed changes in their sense of smell, food preference, and emotional factors, but these changes were usually transitory and could be associated with medications and other factors of transplantation. The findings for heart transplants appear more robust and more strongly associated with the donor’s history.

    Given that not all heart transplant patients report personality changes, what might be the distinguishing characteristics of those who seem vulnerable? Pearsall identified about eighteen distinguishing traits amongst the people he interviewed whom he calls ‘cardio-sensitives’. All but two who reported memory transference were women. They had good emotional IQ, were environmentally sensitive, sensual, animal-loving, music-loving, creative types, more inclined to go with the flow rather than dominate.,,,

    And here is a 2019 study that goes so far as to try to identify the mechanism,

    Personality Changes Following Heart Transplantation: The Role of Cellular Memory – 2019
    Excerpt: Personality changes following heart transplantation, which have been reported for decades, include accounts of recipients acquiring the personality characteristics of their donor. Four categories of personality changes are discussed in this article: (1) changes in preferences, (2) alterations in emotions/temperament, (3) modifications of identity, and (4) memories from the donor’s life. The acquisition of donor personality characteristics by recipients following heart transplantation is hypothesized to occur via the transfer of cellular memory, and four types of cellular memory are presented: (1) epigenetic memory, (2) DNA memory, (3) RNA memory, and (4) protein memory. Other possibilities, such as the transfer of memory via intracardiac neurological memory and energetic memory, are discussed as well. Implications for the future of heart transplantation are explored including the importance of reexamining our current definition of death, studying how the transfer of memories might affect the integration of a donated heart, determining whether memories can be transferred via the transplantation of other organs, and investigating which types of information can be transferred via heart transplantation. Further research is recommended. (PDF available)

    And here are testimonies from the PDF of the preceding study:

    Another example comes from a 47-year-old male recipient who experienced a change in his reaction to food following transplantation. The donor was a 14-year-old gymnast who often skipped meals and would sometimes purge. The recipient explained: “. . . there’s something about food. I don’t know what it is. I get hungry, but after I eat, I often feel nauseated and that it would help if I could throw up” [24, p. 69].,,,
    In a study by Bunzel and colleagues, a 45-year-old recipient who received the heart of a 17- year-old boy reported: “I love to put on earphones and play loud music, something I never did before. . .” [20, p. 254].,,,
    Another example comes from an 18-year-old girl who received the heart of an 18-year-old boy killed in a motor vehicle accident. She described, “I could never play before, but after my transplant, I began to love music. I felt it in my heart. My heart had to play” [24, p. 66]. The donor was a musician who played the guitar.,,,
    a 25-year-old male graduate student who received the heart of a 24-year-old female landscape artist developed an interest in art following transplantation surgery. The recipient’s girlfriend described: “. . . he loves to go to museums. He would never, absolutely never do that. Now he would go every week. Sometimes he stands for minutes and looks at a painting without talking. He loves landscapes and just stares. Sometimes I just leave him there and come back later” [24, p. 68].
    A 48-year-old female dancer who received the heart of an 18-year-old male killed in a motorcycle accident found her preference for colors changed following her ransplant: “I used to be drawn toward hot colors – red, pink, and gold. I had never liked blue or green and had rarely worn them, but ever since the transplant I’ve been attracted to these cooler colors, especially deep forest green. . . most men stay away from hot colors, as I now do” [25, p. 194-195].
    Some recipients develop aversions after obtaining a new heart. For example, a 5-year-old boy received the heart of a 3-year-old boy but was not told the age or cause of his donor’s death. Still, he offered the following description of his donor following surgery: “He’s just a little kid. He’s a little brother like about half my age. He got hurt bad when he fell down. He likes Power Rangers a lot I think, just like I used to. I don’t like them anymore though” [24, p. 70]. The donor died after falling from an apartment window while trying to reach a Power Ranger toy that had fallen on the ledge of the window. After receiving his new heart, the recipient would not touch Power Rangers [24].
    Another example comes from a 9-year-old boy who received the heart of a 3- year-old girl who drowned in the family pool. Although the recipient had no knowledge of his donor or how she died, he developed an aversion to water following his transplant. His mother explained, “Jimmy is now deathly afraid of the water. He loved it before. We live on a lake and he won’t go out in the backyard. He keeps closing and locking the back door walls. He says he’s afraid of the water and doesn’t know why” [24, p. 69].,,,
    Changes in emotions
    A 9-year-old boy who received the heart of a 3-year-old girl described experiencing emotions that he attributed to his donor: “She seems very sad. She is very afraid. I tell her it’s okay, but she is very afraid. She says she wishes that parents wouldn’t throw away their children. I don’t know why she would say that” (24, p. 69).
    The recipient’s mother explained: “He (the recipient) doesn’t know who his donor was or how she died. We do. She drowned at her mother’s boyfriend’s house. Her mother and her boyfriend left her with a teenage babysitter who was on the phone when it happened. I never met her father, but the mother said they had a very ugly divorce and that the father never saw his daughter. She said she had worked a lot of hours and said she wished she had spent more time with her [24, p. 69].
    Changes in temperament
    Some recipients describe changes in temperament after receiving a new heart. For example, one recipient stated, “The new heart has changed me. . . the person whose heart I got was a calm person, not hectic, and his feelings have been passed on to me now” [20, p. 254].
    Changes in identity
    Changes in personal identity are perhaps the most studied type of personality change following heart transplantation. Examples include a 19-year-old woman who received the heart of another woman. The recipient described her donor as follows: “I think of her as my sister. I think we must have been sisters in a former life. I only know my donor was a girl my age, but it’s more than that. I talk to her at night or when I’m sad. I feel her answering me. I can feel it in my chest. I put my left hand there and press it with my right. It’s like I can connect with her” [24, p. 70].
    A 5-year-old boy, who was never told the age or name of his donor, related: “I gave the boy a name. He’s younger than me and I call him Timmy. He’s just a little kid. He’s a little brother like about half my age. He got hurt bad when he fell down [24, p. 70]. The donor was a 3-year-old boy who died after falling from a window. His name was Thomas, but his family called him Timmy [24, p. 70].
    Some individuals have dreams or memories of their donor’s identity. For example, a 48-year-old female recipient wrote about a dream she had 5 months after her transplant: “It’s a warm summer day. I’m standing in an open, outside place, a grassy field. With me is a young man who is tall, thin and wiry, with sandy colored hair. His name is Tim, and I think his last name may be Leighton, but I’m not sure. I think of him as Tim L.” [25, p. 5].
    Later, she learned her donor was an 18-year-old man named Tim Lamirande. This same woman later started a support group for heart transplant recipients and every member of the group described experiencing a shift in personal identity following transplantation surgery: “. . . all of us had some sense after the transplant that we were not alone. And each of us had at some point spontaneously experienced our new heart as an “other” with whom some form of communication was taking place. . . To a greater or lesser extent, each of us saw the new heart within us as representing a separate being” [25, p. 136].,,,

    Now as a Christian Theist who believes in an immaterial mind and in an immaterial soul, (as well as believing that we have “a heart”), the preceding makes fairly good sense to me. But I simply don’t see how materialists, who don’t even believe in a immaterial mind, much less believing in an immaterial soul, (or ‘a heart’), can make any sense out of such testimonies.,,, Materialists simply have no way to explain such things in their worldview. Things like this are simply not suppose to happen in their worldview.

    Matthew 22:37
    Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

  2. 2
    doubter says:

    What happens to the soul? An interesting question. According to the interactive dualism hypothesis, in physical life the soul experiences the physical world, manifests in the physical, through intricately interpenetrating the brain and to a lesser extent the body. The experiences of NDEers seem to bear this out in their experiences of leaving the physical body and then returning. If this model is correct, then after head transplantation, the soul probably would remain embedded in the old head/brain and take up residence in the new body and be a complete human being if the spinal cord connections were somehow medically restored. The soul of the former individual who contributed the body would go on to better things. Or, possibly, this high medical tech intervention would be judged by the powers-that-be to be far too unnatural to the human condition to be allowed to stand, and the procedure would be forced always to fail.

    Another possibility would be that the resident soul of the contributed body and sacrificed head would obstinately refuse to give up its residency, and there even might be a conflict where the soul of the dying recipient battles to prevent the soul of the contributed body from taking over his former brain. Bizarre possibilities.

  3. 3
    chuckdarwin says:

    I just put a rebuilt tranny in my Jeep, so is my Jeep still my Jeep, or the original transmission owner’s Jeep, or is it both our’s, or, or, ????? I’m just so very confused……

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    Chuckdarwin states, “I’m just so very confused……”

    Now if the real Charles Darwin would have just honestly admitted that too, then we could have spared ourselves 160 years of scientific confusion.

  5. 5
    ET says:

    So a tranny is equal to a brain, really? Wow

  6. 6
    AaronS1978 says:

    @ chuckdarwin so how does a transmission equate to a living organism?

    Even if you take a biological reductionistic approach, you cannot make that parallel as each of those body parts are composed of cellular organisms that have their own DNA , their own life cycles, and their own biological make up. Technically no part of us as we are belong to us. As in Ed Yong’s book we are composed of multitudes.

    The only thing that’s confused here is your asinine parallel in an attempt to be clever

    which it wasn’t

    Like it honestly wasn’t

    You’re atheistic skepticism is annoying and miss placed and furthered no part of the discussion other than you jerking off to your own personality thinking you were clever

    So obviously you are truly a Darwinist because you had to mark your territory like a dumb chimpanzee

  7. 7
    EDTA says:


    >”During intimate moments, Fred would call his wife “Sandy”, much to the consternation of his wife Karen.”

    Yeah, that never goes well, does it? 😎
    (Full disclosure: I do NOT know that from personal experience.)

    >”After receiving his new heart, the recipient would not touch Power Rangers [24].”

    Given how the child sadly died, there was not enough time for such a memory to lodge in the cells/DNA/proteins/etc. of the body, in order for the information to be transferred through the physical heart. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing those incidents.

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