In the Heart or in the Head?

I don’t have cable television. I don’t even have one of those digital conversion boxes. I’m afraid the costs and technology have gone beyond a guy who grew up with a black-and-white television with the screen the size of an old Mac Classic. I still try to keep a wary finger on the pulse of popular culture, and fortunately the internet provides just about everything in a condensed version. When I want to see a television show I generally do so through DVDs. Again, expense is prohibitive to the underemployed, but kindly family members often help out with occasional contributions. My brother surprised me this Christmas with the first season of the History Channel’s Monster Quest series (brothers sometimes see what you try to hide from the wider world). After a long weekend of class prep, I sat down to watch an episode last night that introduced me for the first time to the work of Dr. Robert J. White, a retired professor from Case Western Reserve University.

I have always been intrigued by the unlimited possibilities, no matter how remote, that science fiction can conjure. This episode, however, was factual and showed footage of Dr. White’s successful head transplant operations on monkeys in the 1970s. I had no idea that such work had ever really been conducted, let alone successfully. Visions from X-Files: I Want to Believe flashed across my cerebrum while I watched the footage. Not to mention the ubiquitous heads-in-jars of many a science-fiction movie! A plaguing religious question was also stirred back into life after having settled at the bottom of the tank for many years – where does the essence of a person reside? Organ transplants are everyday occurrences, and many lives are prolonged by the sharing of body parts no longer used by their original owners. And transplants do not stop below the neck – cornea transplants bring us very close to the brain, the presumed seat of our personality, consciousness, or, if you will, soul.

when a head meets a body

Dr. White’s monkeys that survived seemed to have retained the personality of the original monkey head on its new body, but I wonder if that was just an illusion. In our world where each individual is treated as a discreet unit, the essence of a person is thought to reside in the brain. Our brains, however, recognize our bodies and sometimes bodies reject the very organs intended to save them. Is there really any possibility of preserving the essence in one’s head alone? Or are we, like ants and bees and Portuguese Men o’ War, really all part of a collective organism? Maybe there is a good reason I don’t have cable or a digital conversion box.

3 thoughts on “In the Heart or in the Head?

  1. What was the old movie where a concert pianist received a (double?) hand transplant from an executed killer and then became a killer himself. Cary Grant or something…

    In health class in high school someone brought up the topic of head transplants and the discussion with the teacher and a small group of girls turned to whose soul would the new person have, the bodies or the heads. I’ll confess, I find that discussion as pointless as I did at the time, even though I like your discussion of it as an illusion. It sure would be weird to have someone else’s body though, chilling to contemplate!

    I’ll go with “Maybe there is a good reason [you] don’t have cable or a digital conversion box.” :^)


  2. Steve Wiggins

    Thanks for that. I am, however, serious when I ask the question of the locus of the “soul.” I don’t think that most religious folk would equate the “soul” with the mind or physical brain. The older I get the more I think that we are part of a larger collective of humanity rather than strictly individuals — everything we do impacts other people. The Portuguese Man o’ War is not a single animal but a collection of different organisms working together toward a common goal. Whenever one is found, however, it is a recognizable form and shape. Perhaps conscious beings are part of a large collective moving toward self-preservation (although we have a funny way of showing it at times).

    I’m not familiar with the movie you mentioned, but I’ll keep an eye out for it! Anything that makes me think is always appreciated!


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