the pulse of the self

Yesterday, I wrote about historical heartbeats, and about the possibility of touching the past. But there’s been something even more fascinating (well, to me) rolling around in my head: the experience of a new heart beating.

A recent scientific study examined the lived experience of heart transplant. Drawing on stories they had heard about how individuals coped and lived with their new hearts, researchers designed a phenomenological study to interrogate the meanings of living with a new heart. Interestingly, medical researchers have apparently not put much focus on this area of research. For doctors, new hearts are like any other new organs: living tissue and nothing more. Doctors see bodies as a puzzle to be solved and not so much as the material substance of lived experience.

I operate from the opposite perspective: I’m much more interested in the puzzle of human lived experience than I am in the puzzle of organic tissue. Sure, that’s an important puzzle, but for me it’s much more important to figure out how we live with the meanings we invest in those tissues. How does the body shape identity? How do tissues, organs, bones, blood, cells, marrow shape who we are?

According to this most recent study, heart transplant results in significant “identity disruption” for recipients. Heart transplants affect not only how they experience their bodies, but also how they imagine the donors. More specifically, it demonstrates that individuals who have had heart transplants sometimes feel as though they are doubly embodied, their very selves shaped by the self who once owned the heart they now possess.

The interview comments from study participants are intriguing:

 “My heart is like it’s mine and somebody else” (9)

“… I felt I had an alien thing in me, or somebody else [heart]…. I missed my old heart.” (10)

“I feel as if another person’s spirit is in me.” (10)

“… because I have somebody else’s organ, and so to a certain point it is almost like a two-in-one …” (10)

These comments reveal some of the split subjectivity that has marked feminist theorizing in the area of pregnancy and childbirth (thinking here of the work of Iris Marion Young, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous, among others), and certainly demonstrate that an approach centred on organ rejection is not nearly enough.

But it’s also important on another level, in that it points to the centrality of the body in the way that we understand our very selves. As the researchers argue, “our work with transplant recipients insists that the phenomenological self is always embodied, and that embodiment is undeniably the continuing condition of being a self at all” (13).

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