Academic journal article The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences

Another Person's Heart: Magical and Rational Thinking in the Psychological Adaptation to Heart Transplantation

Academic journal article The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences

Another Person's Heart: Magical and Rational Thinking in the Psychological Adaptation to Heart Transplantation

Article excerpt

Abstract: Background: The goal of this study was to examine heart transplant recipients' psychological adaptation to another person's heart, with particular emphasis on recipients' attitudes toward graft and donor. Method: Thirty-five male heart recipients were examined by: the Symptom Distress Checklist (revised) (SCL-90-R); the Depression Adjective Checklist (DACL); a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Questionnaire (PTSD-Q); a Heart Image Questionnaire (HIQ); and a Semi-Structured Interview (SSI), aimed at eliciting attitudes and fantasies regarding the transplanted heart. Results: All instruments indicated high levels of stress even several years after the transplant, but, simultaneously, 73% of recipients felt that acquiring a new heart had had a dramatic influence on their lives with a new appreciation of the preciousness of life and a shift of priorities, toward altruism and spirituality. Sixty percent returned to work after the transplant but some had to adapt to a changed attitude from those around them who regarded them as anything from mystical creatures to vulnerable or still-sick individuals. While all recipients possessed a scientific knowledge of the anatomy and physiological significance of the heart (as revealed in the HIQ), many endorsed fantasies and displayed magical thinking: 46% of the recipients had fantasies about the donor's physical vigor and prowess, 40% expressed some guilt regarding the death of the donor, 34% entertained the possibility of acquiring qualities of the donor via the new heart. When asked to choose a most and least preferred imagined donor, 49% constructed their choices according to prejudices, desires, or fears related to ethnic, racial or sexual traits attributed to the donor. Conclusions: This study confirms the intuitive idea that heart transplant involves a stressful course of events that produces an amplified sense of the precariousness of existence. Simultaneously, it gives rise to rejoicing at having been granted a new lease on life and a clear sense of new priorities, especially with regard to relationships. Less expectedly, this study shows that, despite sophisticated knowledge of anatomy and physiology, almost half the heart recipients had an overt or covert notion of potentially acquiring some of the donor's personality characteristics along with the heart. The concomitance of the magical and the logical is not uncommon in many areas of human existence, and is probably enhanced by the symbolic nature of the heart, and maybe, also, by the persistent stress that requires an ongoing, emotionally intense, adaptation process.


Throughout history, the heart has been viewed as the container of spiritual and emotional life. The Basuto and the Yoruba of Africa, among others, practice "psychological cannibalism," in which the heart of an animal or of a human adversary is ingested for the purpose of transfer of certain abilities or personality characteristics (1). A more sublimated expression of this cannibalistic rite can be found in the vision of St. Lutgarde d'Aywiers, in which God exchanged her heart with that of Jesus (2).

Similarly, the custom of burying the heart apart from the body, in practice from ancient Egypt until the 20th century, is based on the view of the heart as the repository of a person's soul. The hearts of Richard the Lion Heart, Robert Brace ("brave-heart"), Shelley, Thomas Hardy (3), Lord Byron, Voltaire and Chopin (1) were all buried apart from their bodies, in order to keep separate the part which contained their essences.

A plenitude of expressions in the Bible, such as "wise-heart," "scheming-heart," "stone heart," "vain heart," "pure heart," "villain hearted," "thinking heart," "melting heart," and "sick of heart" reflect, in another ancient context, the view of the heart as the location of the personality. When King Saul needed courage, God gave him a "new heart" (Book of Samuel 1: 10,9).

The new heart, a metaphor in former days, has become a concrete reality in our time, when surgeons install another person's heart as a routine procedure for end-stage cardiac illness. …

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