Conundrum over head transplant
If the soul really exists, where in the body does it belong? Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul was in the heart. According to their religion, the fate after death was determined by the weight of the heart. When an Egyptian died, the heart was examined by Anubis, the Egyptian god with a canine head. If the soul and heart were heavy with sins, it would be consumed by a monster. They believed that a person with a light heart would go to heaven.
In medieval Europe, it was widely believed that the soul was in the head. Some even dissected brains in search for souls. Leonardo da Vinci was one of them.
Then, what would happen if a major organ, like a heart, was transplanted to a stranger? Will the soul and personality go with the heart? In cellular memory theory, organ cells can also remember, and when an organ is transplanted, the donor’s characteristics can affect the recipient. In 2003, a sexagenarian patient with no artistic background displayed talents in painting after a heart transplant surgery, and it turned out that the donor had been an amateur artist. There are many similar cases. Dr. Gary Schwartz is the progenitor of the cellular memory theory, and in the past two decades, he found more than 70 cases.
Recently, a team at China’s Harbin Medical University claimed to have successfully completed a monkey head transplant. Italian neurologist Sergio Canavero, nicknamed Dr. Frankenstein, plans to perform a head transplant on humans.
Regardless of success, the head transplant operation is controversial for its ethical questions. When a head is transplanted on another person’s body, who should this person be? If that patient has children, whose kids are they? When there are cases of organ transplants affecting personalities, what would happen if the whole body is changed? A more controversial question is what if wealthy people attempt to live forever by changing bodies repeatedly?
Regardless of these questions, the head transplant surgery is likely to become a reality in the near future. Many people anticipate successful operations, including patients with paralysis and terminal illnesses. A Russian computer scientist suffering from a rare genetic muscle wasting condition has volunteered for the procedure scheduled for the end of next year.
Korean medicine has world-class skills in organ transplant operations. It is said that a Korean professor participated in the monkey head transplant operation. Perhaps a similar procedure may be performed in Korea as well. Then how should we respond? The government and academia need to think about the issue. While it may sound like a far-fetched sci-fi story, it could be a reality closer than we may think.
The author is the editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 25, Page 31
by NAM JEONG-HO
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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