Would you look through Gary Gilmore’s eyes?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Music, Oddities, Science

Okay, it’s a reference to The Adverts, and in particular their song about the spree killer, Gary Gilmore, who was executed by firing squad in 1977, and who requested that his corneas be used for transplants (which they were).

The Adverts released a song called Gary Gilmore’s Eyes, which was decried as being somewhat in bad taste (probably a fair point), which asked what it would be like to be the recipient of Gary Gilmore’s eyes.

Now I do have a reason for bringing up a song released 22 years ago. I came across an interesting article on the BBC which suggests that:

Most people have a strong aversion to the idea of receiving a donor organ from a killer [...] they would be far happier receiving a transplant from someone with a good moral backgroundBBC News

They go on to suggest that one in three people who have received an organ transplant believe that they have taken on some aspects of the donor’s personality. Obviously in the case of a killer, the crux of the matter would be — and this is where the song picks up the idea perfectly — would you look at people in precisely the same way?

The eye receives the messages,
And sends them to the brain.
No guarantee the stimuli must be perceived the same…
When looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.The Adverts: Gary Gilmore’s Eyes

Now that’s an interesting topic. I suppose I too would have a preference that any donor organs I was ever to receive hadn’t come from a nasty person, but not to the extent that I’d turn them down if I needed a transplant. But do I believe in organ transplants changing your personality?

Well, yes but no, to be honest. After all, if one in three people think their personality has changed, this would mean that two in three people don’t. Secondly, you’d have to explain some mechanism whereby the donor’s personality wasn’t associated with either their brain (or, if you are so inclined, their soul) and has somehow been partially transplanted at the same time.

But I’m prepared to concede that some changes may be possible. I personally don’t know enough about the science to rule it out (others may have this knowledge) but I would presume that a donor organ would have some physiological differences, which might relate themselves to different chemical balances, which may impact upon the personality in some ways. There are a lot of mights in there. I don’t think it’s likely, but without further knowledge (whether from someone who already knows, or original research), I wouldn’t like to say I’m sure.

Equally though, there are other logical reasons why your personality might change. You’ll just have had a life-threatening experience, and major bloody surgery for a start. You also might well feel gratitude that is difficult to express — because if the person you are feeling grateful to hadn’t died, you’d have no reason to be grateful. So that’s a bit odd. I think these things are likely to have some impact upon your personality.

There are now more than 70 documented cases [...] where transplant patients have taken on some of the personality traits of the organ donors. Professor Gary Schwartz and his co-workers at the University of Arizona have documented numerous seemingly inexplicable experiences similar to Sonny’s. And every single one is a direct challenge to the medical status quo.Mail Online

And then you’ve got confirmation bias. I don’t know how many transplants there are per year, but I’d guess we’ve clocked up our millionth global transplant by now. If someone has clocked up 70 cases where the personality has changed and is more like the donor, that’s hardly a surprise. If 1/10th of transplant cases have a personality change, then the change is either going to make them more or less like the personality of the donor — call that 50/50? So we’d expect 1 in 20 (hey, call it 1 in 50 if you like) to have a personality more like the donor.

With about a million transplants, that would be 50,000 at 1 in 20, or 20,000 cases at 1 in 50 where we would expect this to occur pretty much by chance. Now it might be that people aren’t really looking for this, so if they looked closely, they’d find more, but 70 cases where we’d expect to see at least 20,000 isn’t exactly convincing. Every time you find another case that seems to fit, you add it to your “ahah!” list; the cases which don’t fit don’t attract your attention. That’s confirmation bias.

As I say, I don’t know it’s nonsense, but I’d need a lot more convincing. And examples like this hardly convince anyone:

She believes that she must have picked up her new characteristics from the donor, a 59-year-old man who died from an aneurysm. Now, not only has her personality changed, the single mother also claims that her tastes in literature have taken a dramatic turn. Whereas she only used to read low-brow novels, Dostoevsky has become her author of choice since the transplant.Daily Telegraph

Note that there’s no indication whatsoever that the donor liked Dostoevsky: the assumption is seemingly that because she didn’t previously read Dostoevsky, and now she does, that it must be related to her transplant, and that the donor must themselves have liked Dostoevsky. That’s one heck of an assumption. On that basis, I must have had a transplant about five years ago that I wasn’t aware of from someone who liked detective stories, because I didn’t used to read crime fiction and now I do.

I’m not saying it’s nonsense, I’m just saying that I am not yet aware of any credible evidence. So — assuming I needed them, and the organs were in good condition — I’d be quite prepared to be looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes, hearing through Dennis Nilsen’s ears, breathing through Jeffrey Dahmer’s lungs or even filtering water through Jack the Ripper’s kidneys. But it does (and has, repeatedly) made for a good story or plot hook.

[hmm: tempted to change post title to 'filtering water through Jack the Ripper's kidneys' now...]

Of course, if you know different, do tell…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Comments to Would you look through Gary Gilmore’s eyes?

  1. The Goldfish says:

    June 11th, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    My friend Sara who died this spring managed to become an organ donor, her partner wrote a little post which touches on this possibility here here

  2. Steve Whateley says:

    June 12th, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Hmmm, I think your calculator is playing you up a bit. I think that you’ll find that “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes” by The Adverts was released 32 years ago, not 22 years ago. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking on your part as it certainly feels like only 22 years ago, which makes me think “Where did the other ten years go?” which is a different blog entirely…

  3. JackP says:

    June 12th, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Damn you, Steve Whateley. I was managing to persuade everyone I was still but a youth until you pointed out the minor flaw in my maths…

  4. afcbaggy says:

    November 30th, 2009 at 2:26 am

    Top blog sir!

    Gary Gilmore’s Eyes is a classic tune from my evolutionary teens, and your piece is a true tribute to such innovative surgery.

    Well written and researched (apart from that year obviously LOL).



  5. garment news daily says:

    July 28th, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Gems form the internet…

    [...]very few websites that happen to be detailed below, from our point of view are undoubtedly well worth checking out[...]……

  6. onkelseoserbe says:

    November 6th, 2011 at 7:00 pm


    [...]It’s the best time to make a few plans for the longer term and it’s time to be happy. I’ve read this put up and if I may I wish to suggest you some fascinating things or suggestions. Maybe you can write next articles relating to this article. I…

  7. watch ufc 141 says:

    December 28th, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    watch ufc 141…

    [...]Hello my family member! I want to say that this article is awesome, nice written and come with almost all significant infos. I would like to see more posts like this .[...]…

Leave a comment