Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Heart & Soul

More pseudoscience in the papers today, alas. Will this tide of ignorance ever end?

The title of the article is a question...a question that has a very obvious answer, but they ask it anyway:

Can we really transplant a human soul?

No, of course we can't.

One key reason being that there is no such thing as a human soul, and even if there was, we have no surgical tools designed for transplanting non-physical human pieces, and no surgical training on how it should be done.

The article, by Dr Danny Penman in the Daily Mail relates to a recent heart transplant, and can be read here.

Essentially, the gist of the story is that the person who received the donated heart took his own life shortly afterwards, in the same manner as the original owner of the heart, and the suggestion is that the heart transplant somehow transferred something of the original owner's memories and personality over to the recipient.

I thought we'd discovered thousands of years ago that the heart isn't the seat of memory and emotion as once thought, but it seems the news still hasn't got round to everyone yet. It's a pump people!
The suggestion, highlighted again this week, that donor patients could not only be acquiring the organs but also the memories - or even the soul - of the donor is surely one such story.
This bizarre possibility was raised by the inexplicable case of Sonny Graham - a seemingly happily married 69-year-old man living in the U.S. state of Georgia. He shot himself without warning, having shown no previous signs of unhappiness, let alone depression.

Inexplicable my arse! There's a few perfectly sensible possible explanations...and certainly no need to postulate a mysterious 'soul transfer'. On closer reading of the story, we learn that it wasn't just the heart of the donor that Sonny took for his own:

The case might have remained just an isolated tragedy were it not for the fact that Sonny had received a transplanted heart from a man who had also shot
himself - in identical circumstances.
To make things even more intriguing, shortly after receiving the heart transplant, Sonny tracked down the wife of the donor - and fell instantly in love with her.

He married her soon after they met. Yes that's right - as well as receiving the donor's heart, he also married his widow! So now the heart is no longer the only linking factor between the two suicides. Both men were married to the same woman!

Immediately we have a whole raft of possible rational explanations for the apparently co-incidental deaths, so we don't need to imagine that perhaps the heart transplant carried across part of a dead man's soul.

While the article suggests the recipient and the doner's widow met and fell in love in a romantic way, and implies some mysterious "connection" between them due to the heart transplant, the cynic in me has to wonder if one of both of them didn't have ulterior motives - the recipient was 69 and the widow, at 33, less than half his age.

Perhaps he was taking advantage of her grief at losing her original husband to get himself a trophy wife, perhaps she was hoping to get a share of his wealth. Whilst both of these may be utterly wrong - perhaps they genuinely did fall in love - at least these possibilities are plausible and don't require anything mysterious like a soul transfer.

It is suggested that the recipient's suicide was a shock, that it came out of the blue and that he had no history of unhappiness or depression. This may very well be the case, but again this is no reason to suspect some mysterious soul or personality transfer took place.

The guy has just had a major surgery; that experience, on top of the heart pains and worry he must have experienced prior to the transplant, would surely be enough to have a significant influence on someone's happiness and behaviour.

In any case, as mentioned earlier, the heart is not the only common factor linking the two suicides. The other factor is the wife...perhaps she drove her husbands to suicide...who knows. Probably she didn't, but this suggesting such a possibility is surely more reasonable than suggesting a mysterious transfer of the soul?

Perhaps it was the notion of "soul transfer" itself that drove the recipient of the heart to suicide...perhaps having had it mentioned to him he started to believe another man's soul was taking him over. That would be quite a terrifying thought if you genuinely believed it!

Both my speculations and those about soul transfer in the original article are just that... speculation. The difference is, mine don't involve postulating the existence of something that all the evidence suggests does not exist - the soul. The possible explanations I put forward fit easily into our understanding of the world and of people. The possible explanations depending on soul transfer do not, they fit into an understanding of the world that was long ago discovered to be false.

Suggestions have been put forward that perhaps memories and personality traits are stored in organs other than the brain. No plausible mechanism for this has been put forward however, and it seems to be based on little more than wishful thinking.

Towards the end of the article, the writer says:

modern biology has a guilty little secret: it has, as yet, no viable theory to
explain how we store memories and how we produce consciousness.
In fact, scientists haven't even managed to define what exactly consciousness is, let alone managed to pin down where it comes from and where it is to be found within the body.

This is bending the truth close to breaking point...or perhaps further. In science, not having a finalised and complete model of how something happens is not a "guilty secret", it's the reason why scientists are driven to keep on working to learn more!

While the specifics are still being worked on, scientists have an understanding of how memories are stored and crude though it is, this understanding is sufficient to show that memories are stored in the brain:

Recent experiments involving electronic stimulation to deep parts of the brain have shown amazing results in increasing ability to recall memories.

Surgery on brains and damage to parts of brains has caused loss or corruption of memories. For many years the notion that a bump on the head can effect your memory has been commonplace...unlike some commonly held beliefs there's some truth behind this one.

The presence of certain chemicals in the brain are known to impair a person's ability to lay down new memories. Alcohol being a well known example of this.

Consciousness has never been shown to exist separately from brains. Alterations to the brain have major effects on consciousness, alterations to other parts of the body do not.

To suggest that science has no idea"where it [consciousness] is to be found within the body" is at best ignorant, and at worst intellectually dishonest.

Science may not have a single clear definition of consciousness, and it may not know exactly how it is generated, but it does know that it is a property that emerges from, and so far only from, brains.

To those who believe that memories laid down throughout the body, and that consciousness comes from throughout the body, I ask the following questions:

1. When people have internal organs or limbs removed, they don't generally lose memories. Why is this? And why is it that when people suffer damage to certain specific parts of the brain, memories and abilities are consistently lost?

2. When people have internal organs or limbs removed, they don't usually change their personality or consciousness, yet if people have extensive brain surgery they often do show significant personality changes...why is this?

Don't become a victim of the wave of mysticism and pseudoscience sweeping the world.... when choosing between possibilities, think it through rationally. Think it through with your brain.

Note: This article has triggered some discussions, which I've summarised in a follow-up post - you can read it here

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary. My thoughts exactly.