Transplanting Memories is a 'science' documentary made by Dunedin based company Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ). They are (or at least were), renown for their documentaries, especially as their name suggests, on natural history. The basis of Transplanting Memories was that humans who undergo organ transplants can also receive the donor's memories, habits, sexual preferences, desires, personality traits etc. due to something called 'cellular memory'.
So is there any validity to the claims made in this documentary? Does science and medical research support this conclusion? Is there evidence that 'cellular memory' even exists?
Did NHNZ produce a critical, well researched, unbiased documentary or was it merely a scam, a frivolous piece of crap aimed at a gullible and superstitious audience solely to make money?
Conclusion: It's a scam.
After viewing Transplanting Memories in April 2005 I wrote a letter of complaint to the Otago Daily Times (ODT) describing it as 'pure drivel dressed up as science'.
This is how NHNZ promotes this documentary on the Internet and at film festivals:
NHNZ Online Store - Transplanting MemoriesTo read a slightly longer summary that mentions some of the recipients' experiences, go here. (Click your browser's 'Back' button to return to the main essay).
In this essay I will answer Mr Stedman's accusations regarding my integrity and clearly explain why his company's documentary Transplanting Memories really is 'drivel dressed up as science'. I will show that companies like NHNZ and its parent 'Fox Television Studios' can not be relied on to put science, facts, truth etc ahead of profit, entertainment, audience share etc. I will also show that Mr Stedman's reply in no way counters my criticism of the documentary.
Below is my letter to the Otago Daily Times followed by Mr Stedman's reply:
Documentary 'drivel dressed up as science'
Michael Stedman, managing director, Natural History New Zealand, replies:
First let me answer Mr Stedman's disparaging comments regarding my integrity and my approach to the 'science' contained in NHNZ's documentary Transplanting Memories.
I'm 'closed minded' according to Mr Stedman since I dismiss the theory of cellular memory. I could ask Mr Stedman if he dismisses those who believe in leprechauns, and if he answered 'yes', doesn't that make Mr Stedman closed minded as well? Actually no. We all reject many, many things that we believe there is no good evidence for. Thus I rejected cellular memory because I believe that not only is there no good evidence for it, there is also much evidence against it. That's not being closed minded, that's being rational.
As to the concept: "People ridiculed Copernicus, Darwin etc and they turned out to be right. They're ridiculing me, so that means I must be right too". However history shows that most people that are ridiculed for having false ideas, turned out to really have false ideas. Where would society be if we blindly accepted everything every lunatic said? People must learn to ask: "Show me the evidence", and evaluate new claims with reason, not by how much their proponents are ridiculed or ostracised.
I didn't dismiss the debate on cellular memory, I dismissed cellular memory and NHNZ's biased presentation of it. There is a difference. Indeed, by writing my letter I was hoping that it would generate debate on the subject, informed and reasoned debate that was missing from the documentary.
As a maker of science programmes, Mr Stedman finds it 'disturbing' that I disagree with a scientific theory, stating science is about learning. Science is more than that though, because when you learn something you must have a way of determining whether that something is actually true. You devise a theory, test it and reject it if it's wrong. Science thrives on its theories being challenged, rather than being blindly accepted. One shouldn't be disturbed that the scientific method is working.
His simple statement that 'cellular memory is a controversial theory with both advocates and critics', is like saying the 'Flat Earth' theory has both advocates and critics. It suggests that both sides of the argument are equal, which they are not, and is disingenuous. Equally his statement 'cellular memory, which like much of science sits between the known and the unknown' again implies that cellular memory is on a par with what the public think of as mainstream science. It is this careful selection of phrases and evidence that helps make these quasi-documentaries biased. Deliberately or otherwise, a false impression has been planted.
Mr Stedman implies that I have dismissed cellular memory through ignorance, no doubt a product of my closed mind, and that to achieve a more balanced view I should research Dr Schwartz's work. This seems to suggest that if I really understood his theory, I would be perfectly content that almost the whole program was dedicated to his theory. Again, perhaps it hasn't occurred to Mr Stedman that I might have dismissed cellular memory because I have examined its claims and found them wanting?
My central concern was that the documentary presented a biased, unbalanced view of cellular memory, and yet Mr Stedman's comments failed to address this issue. Nowhere in his reply did Mr Stedman make any attempt to show that mainstream science and medicine are taking cellular memory seriously, nor did he attempt to defend the scientific or skeptical balance in the documentary. Mr Stedman provided no reference to those in the documentary that were critical of cellular memory and who would have provided balance, or to the proportion of time they were allocated compared to the cellular memory proponents. Mr Stedman gave us no reassurance that balance is important in NHNZ documentaries. In answer to my complaint that the documentary was biased, that is, full of information supporting cellular memory and little else, his reply simply recommended further study of cellular memory. And Mr Stedman is completely dismissive of the professional opinion of critic and transplant surgeon Jeff Punch, seemingly because it's outdated (A strange approach when Mr Stedman lectures me on dismissing views that I don't like). Strange also that when it comes to transplant surgery, the practical experiences of a transplant surgeon can be negated by the fringe theories of someone who makes no claims of performing transplants.
A balanced documentary is not about who is right and who is wrong, but whether each side is given equal opportunity to present their view and equal opportunity to respond to the others' claims. This open, informed and reasoned debate that Mr Stedman claims I am dismissing, was denied viewers of Transplanting Memories. The media is a powerful tool, and false ideas can be easily planted in people's minds by these 'quasi-documentaries', which are nothing more than propaganda.
Mr Stedman is correct on one assumption. Most people should not leave a screening of Transplanting Memories thinking cellular memory is drivel, because, honestly, the documentary simply doesn't give you enough information to objectively reach that conclusion. However if you look further at the evidence supporting cellular memory (or rather the lack of it), the wider ramifications of the theory, and the beliefs and claims of its proponents, it's difficult to take it seriously. If you go further and look at the criticism and evidence against cellular memory, as well as the evidence that supports mainstream theories, cellular memory theory does indeed take on the appearance of drivel.
Unfortunately almost none of this extra information and evidence was provided to the documentary audience. They were not able to make an informed and reasoned decision based on all the evidence. The bulk of the information was in the form of subjective and emotive case studies from a mere fraction of the transplants that have occurred worldwide. All of the participants were interviewed after the donor families and recipients had already exchanged information, thus contamination cannot be ruled out. One of Dr Schwartz's case studies even involved psychic powers, with the donor foreseeing his own death, heart donation and the name of the recipient, yet this was still claimed as evidence for cellular memory. The main claim of the documentary was that organ transplant recipients receive memories of the donors, yet here the opposite occurred, with the donor doing the receiving. Dr Schwartz, a scientist, sees no problem in mixing this event in with evidence for cellular memory.
Almost any theory, no matter how weird, can be made to appear plausible if you are selective in what you tell your audience. Take the 'Flat Earth' theory. Common sense tells us it's true, until you compare it with the evidence. The Fox TV special 'Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land On The Moon?' is a perfect example of how a biased and uncritical documentary can change public belief for the worse. Many intelligent people now believe the moon landing was a hoax, based solely on information in this documentary. Much of what was claimed sounded reasonable and scientific, and since little time was given to critics to clearly debunk these claims viewers were left with the impression that NASA had something to hide. TV programmers obviously consider the claims made in this documentary so important that it has been broadcast at least 4 times on NZ primetime TV. Other Fox television specials seen here were 'Signs from God: Science Tests Faith', 'Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?' and 'Opening the Lost Tombs: Live from Egypt', which was introduced in the US as an item during Fox News as: "Reports that Aliens May Have Built the Pyramids of Egypt!" These are clear examples on how to disseminate misinformation, and are especially devious when they screen them live during the "News". Somebody once suggested that TV programs masquerading as documentaries should carry a continuous disclaimer such as "This program is providing you with a one-sided treatment of a controversial issue". Unfortunately they do not.
The first question moon hoax believers usually throw at me is: "If they really went to the moon, why didn't they ever go back?" When I say: "They did. Man has travelled to the moon nine times and landed six times, with 12 different astronauts walking on the surface", they reply dumbfounded, "They did? Then why didn't the documentary tell us that?" Because it wasn't helpful to the story they wanted you to believe. Often in these biased documentaries it's not what they tell you, it's what they don't tell you that's vitally important.
So here's what Transplanting Memories and Mr Stedman didn't tell us about cellular memory and its main proponent Dr Schwartz.
For one, Transplanting Memories reveals very little of Dr Schwartz's theory of cellular memory or Systemic Memory Theory. For that you need to go to his book The Living Energy Universe, where he contends that it's not just organs, but that everything in the Universe is alive, evolving, eternal and has memories. That includes your wristwatch, water, light and the Universe itself. Everything. While the audience might accept that body organs may have memories, how many would have also accepted that your wristwatch can remember things? He believes we get old because we build up too many memories, and that our bodies excrete, not primary to get rid of waste, but to get rid of extra memories. His theory predicts that, even without an organ transplant, we should be swamped with new memories every time we drink water and eat chicken (yet strangely no one experiences them).
Dr Schwartz also believes his cellular memory theory supports and explains paranormal phenomena such as:
While quick to list Dr Schwartz's qualifications and position at the University of Arizona, Mr Stedman fails to highlight his actual positions as Director of the Center for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science (ie healing related to body energy fields or "auras") and Director of the Human Energy Systems Laboratory, whose prime research has been to test the hypothesis that the human soul survives physical death by using mediums to communicate with the dead. This is told in his latest book 'The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life after Death'. And where theologians, philosophers and scientists have failed throughout history, Dr Schwartz claims to have scientifically proven the existence of God. His next planned book is 'The G.O.D. Experiments'.
Psychologist Paul Pearsall, who has conducted research with Dr Schwartz, has also written a book on cellular memory called 'The Heart's Code'. His research suggests that the heart thinks, cells remember, and that both of these processes are related to an as yet mysterious, extremely powerful, but very subtle energy with properties unlike any other known force.
"The brain has lost its mind," says Pearsall. "It's so busy that it doesn't really connect with the energy we know to be ancient, spiritual and intuitive. The heart has a coded, subtle knowledge connecting us to everything and everyone around us. That aggregate knowledge is our spirit and soul. The heart is a sentient, thinking, feeling, communicating organ."And Mr Stedman insists that there's nothing mystical in cellular memory theory!!!
In the documentary Transplanting Memories, would the credibility of Dr Schwartz have suffered if he had announced something like this to the audience: Along with cellular memory, I have also scientifically proven that most paranormal phenomena are real, that the Universe and everything in it is alive, and that God exists?
The fact that none of Dr Schwartz's wider claims and beliefs were divulged to the audience seems to suggest that NHNZ wasn't prepared to take that risk.
Discussion of cellular memory is found most often in a paranormal or pseudoscience context, such as the following quotes from two websites:
"This might explain why some humans have vivid memories of past lives, especially when under hypnosis, that were never lived. They are reacting to cellular memory, not reincarnation".Put simply, examination of the claims of cellular memory proponents, especially paranormal support, provides no credible evidence for cellular memory.
Mr Stedman correctly states that misquoting and quoting out of context is a technique often used by those that lack substance and that truth and understanding are often the casualty. This is a wonderful description of what actually occurred in Transplanting Memories. However, Mr Stedman actually accuses me of this crime.
Mr Stedman categorically stated that I misquoted him and he implied that he knew where I sourced this "quote" from, yet if that is the case, he knew full well (although the reader didn't), that those were his exact words. I did not misquote him.
At no point did he admit that these exact words were spoken or say something along the lines of: "Yes, Andrew and I did say that, but what we were attempting to convey was this... " Instead Mr Stedman went on the attack, accusing me of being closed minded, dismissive of debate, lacking substance, intent on mischief and out to suppress "truth and understanding". To put it bluntly, of lying.
Mr Stedman suggested I research the views of those I'm criticising (eg Dr Schwartz) before rushing into print, yet he ignored his own advice when it came to denouncing my view. Rather than simply accusing me of being closed minded and up to mischief, he had one month, plenty of time to contact me through the ODT and discover my position. Mr Stedman chose not to.
As regards the quotes, what can we take from executive producer Andrew Waterworth's comment:
"People ..., for the most part, don't have the brain space to take up information out of sheer curiosity"It should also be noted that Andrew Waterworth is listed as executive producer for Transplanting Memories. As Mr Stedman knows, Mr Waterworth's quote was taken from a 2003 World Screen News Inc article by Bill Dunlap entitled Under the Microscope, an article that examines the suggestion that:
"You can still find science programming—quite a lot of it, actually—but like the rest of today's factual programming, it is dressed up with entertainment values and camouflaged as mysteries or suspenseful thrillers".Regardless of what Mr Stedman believes Andrew Waterworth meant, and he didn't say what that was, it's perfectly obvious what his quote implies. Maybe it wasn't very diplomatic, but it demonstrates an arrogant attitude to the mental abilities of his audience. Personally I would be embarrassed if my staff had this attitude towards their audience and I find it insulting that some people are so condescending in their belief that they can only educate me if they first disguise the product. It seems that only producers have the extra 'brain space' to be curious about something, and then they can go on to study it, interview scientists and then repackage it in an entertaining way to enlighten the lives of the rest of us that suffer from a curiosity deficiency.
I agree completely that a great way to convey information is to make it entertaining and interesting, but I am disappointed with Mr Stedman's quote in a 2003 World Screen News Inc interview with Mansha Daswani entitled NHNZ's Michael Stedman:
"We recognised some years ago that we were part of the entertainment industry, not the education industry".Again, this is not a misquote as Mr Stedman claimed in the ODT. Mr Stedman clearly stated that his company is NOT part of the education industry.
I feel that those that elect to make science documentaries must have education as their primary goal. The question then becomes: how do we make it so that people will want to watch it? This is where the use of entertainment comes into the equation, but it must never be allowed to distort the facts. If you can't tell the story without suppressing certain key facts or misleading the audience, then find another angle. For example, you can't succeed with the premise that ghosts don't exist if every program is dominated by scary ghost stories that are left unexplained, just because people find the idea of ghosts entertaining.
To the argument that people won't watch real science programmes, excellent and enormously popular documentaries such as Cosmos by Carl Sagan, Life on Earth (and numerous others) by David Attenborough and Beyond 2000 easily demolish this claim.
As for the loss of faith by some in Fox's integrity, perhaps Mr Stedman should watch doco-movies The Corporation and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. Then he should check out the following Fox TV programs:
US philosopher Paul Kurtz has commented that:
"Media mega-corporations are interested first and foremost in profits; hence, they produce media programs in terms of their marketability. The criterion is what will sell, not what is true. Entertainment outmatches information and education".Another observation by Paul Kurtz is that:
"We need to impart to publishers, editors, producers, and writers some sense of their responsibility not to distort the truth and their obligation to raise the level of scientific comprehension and critical thinking".Glen Sparks, a Purdue University communications professor, has researched the effects of biased, uncritical quasi-documentaries and concludes:
"The way the media depict these paranormal events does seem to have an impact on what people end up believing when the program is over."US skeptical organisation and publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) has also taken action over biased programming:
"Alarmed by the steady stream of irresponsible programming spewing forth claims that were patently false, CSICOP established the Council for Media Integrity, calling for some balanced presentation of science. Given massive media misinformation, it is difficult for large sectors of the public to distinguish between science and pseudoscience, particularly since there is a heavy dose of "quasi-documentary" films. TV is a powerful medium; and when it enters the home with high drama and the stamp of authenticity, it is difficult for ordinary persons to distinguish purely imaginative fantasies from reality".
And this from the Gallup Organization, 2001:
"Americans' belief in psychic and paranormal phenomena is up over last decade. Belief in psychic healing and extrasensory perception top the list. The Gallup Poll ...results suggest a significant increase in belief in a number of these experiences over the past decade, including in particular such Halloween-related issues as haunted houses, ghosts and witches. Only one of the experiences tested has seen a drop in belief since 1990: devil possession.
Although the above Gallop Poll was for the US, nearly all my friends, family and acquaintances hold at least one of these paranormal beliefs. We live in a time when we know more about the universe than ever before, yet the beliefs of the majority of the population match that of medieval peasants. Most newspapers, and the ODT is no exception, run astrology columns and quotes from the Bible. As I write this TV3 is advertising our own NZ made show with real-life psychic medium Jeanette Wilson, entitled Dare to Believe. The very name is reminiscent of a childish taunt: "Go on, I dare you to believe", and demonstrates that they want you to judge this show on emotion, not reason.
In addition to TV's quasi-documentaries, our movies and TV programs abound with images of imaginary beings, from aliens and angels, to witches and vampire slayers. Unfortunately entertainment media tends to devalue science and reason, since facts often get in the way of a good story. Sure these stories can be fun and entertaining, and I'm a fan of many of them, but too many people don't realise they're only stories. The politically correct notion that these other views of reality are equally valid is ridiculous. We are becoming a society with futuristic technology and medieval beliefs.
The makers of science documentaries could play an important part in dispelling these myths, but unfortunately some have decided there is more money to be made from numerous programs on mysteries that reach inconclusive verdicts, than on one program debunking them. There is enough mystery and awe in the real universe without having to invent more.
Finally, let's look at the scenario that Mr Stedman is correct, and that there really could be some substance to cellular memory. What would the consequences be?
If Mr Stedman really believes it could have some validity, why isn't he insisting on a moratorium on organ transplants? A complete stop until more comprehensive checking can be performed to match donors with recipients and to screen out donors with harmful traits, eg serial killers? Surely the public needs to be informed that a transplant may cause you to adopt the donor's characteristics. If the donor was a homosexual, a vegetarian, a lover of line dancing and country music, a paedophile, a misogynist and/or a racist, some or all of these attributes may be transferred to the recipient, overriding their original attributes. If the donor died in an horrific accident or was murdered, the recipient may relive this event over and over. Would they want any or all of these traits? A driven entrepreneur receiving the heart of a surfer may find his work suffers as all he wants to do now is ride the waves. Personality wise, it turns them into a different person. Marriages, families, friendships and careers could be destroyed. We insisted on a moratorium on genetic engineering because of the fear of altering our bodies by contamination with foreign DNA, so equally we should resist contamination by foreign memories and traits. Why isn't Mr Stedman campaigning to have this documentary more widely viewed if he feels there really could be something to cellular memory and its consequences? Shouldn't transplants, blood donations etc be stopped until proven safe from foreign memories? Our unique personalities are at stake here!
After viewing the documentary and studying Dr Schwartz's work Mr Stedman refuses to publicly dismiss their conclusions, but his silence on the need for organ transplant bans and public awareness suggests that his personal view is somewhat different.
I stand by my initial claims, that the documentary was biased and unbalanced, and that Dr Schwartz's cellular memory theory is drivel. I also believe that too many documentary makers have changed markets, their target audience now those with an interest in the mysterious, the paranormal, pseudoscience and the supernatural. An audience that wants their beliefs explored and supported, but not debunked. Hence one-sided, but entertaining, quasi-documentaries on everything from alien abductions and ghosts, to psychics and Bigfoot.
With their documentary Transplanting Memories Natural History New Zealand has entered this shady world of entertainment over education, profit over integrity.
As managing director of NHNZ Michael Stedman has considerable public standing yet refuses to highlight the 'dangers of organ transplants' his company has exposed, while at the same time publicly praising NHNZ's work, 'including the integrity of its scientific content'. I detect a conflict of beliefs here. Defending NHNZ as a whole is different to defending the conclusions of Transplanting Memories. Has integrity been suppressed for the good of the company's reputation?
Mr Stedman has accused me of being closed minded, of dismissing without reason, yet surely this is no worse than accepting without reason. And this is exactly what these quasi-documentaries encourage.
Perhaps it's fitting after all that these 'science' documentaries vie for the "Prix Jules Verne" award. An award named after a writer considered the founder of modern 'science fiction'.
Authors: John L. Ateo, Jason C.
Last Updated Jun 2007