Could Dick Cheney’s New Heart Make Him a Democrat?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 26 2012 6:53 PM

Personality Transplant

Can a change of heart lead to a change of heart?

Former Vice President Dick Cheney in 2011.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney in 2011

By Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

On Saturday, former Vice President Dick Cheney received a heart transplant after suffering five heart attacks over the past 34 years. News of the successful operation prompted liberals to joke about how the new organ might affect his famously chilly personality. “Dick Cheney receives new, hopefully more empathetic heart,” read a headline on the blog Jezebel. “Maybe now he’ll become a Democrat,” suggested a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. Could a heart transplant actually lead to a change of heart?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Yes, though it probably won’t turn a hawk into a dove. Heart transplants trigger a number of significant physiological and psychological changes, and the overall result depends on the individual. One of the most common effects is straightforward: A new lease on life tends to make people happier and more optimistic, sometimes to the point of temporary euphoria. Patients with advanced heart failure often believe they have as little as a year or two left to live, and their daily activities may be restricted by their poor circulation. Studies suggest that more than one in five people with heart failure are clinically depressed. Successful transplant recipients can expect to live for a decade or more, depending on their age and overall health, and they tend to have more energy and can eat a wider range of foods. Better blood flow to the brain can also improve cognition. It’s not that the new heart comes with a new personality; it’s that having a functional heart can improve your outlook.

While a new heart is a good thing, the process of transplanting it might cause psychological problems in some patients. Any medical procedure for which the heart must be taken temporarily offline has the potential to cause short-term memory loss, cognitive decline, and transient depression—a condition that has been nicknamed “pumphead,” after the machine that takes over the patient’s cardiopulmonary functions in the operating room. Doctors continue to debate exactly why this happens, but one theory is that it’s a product of reduced oxygen flow to the brain during surgery. It could also be the lingering result of a patient’s having his blood cells exposed to the foreign surfaces of the heart-lung machine.


There are a few anecdotes of heart transplant recipients taking on the personality traits of their donor, but there’s no scientific evidence to support the phenomenon. Perhaps the best-known story is that of Claire Sylvia, a former professional dancer who received a heart from an 18-year-old boy who died in a motorcycle accident. In a book called A Change of Heart, Sylvia reported that she started craving beer and KFC fried chicken after the surgery—things that the donor had also enjoyed. While a few researchers have posited that such traits could somehow be transmitted along with the donor’s cells, mainstream cardiologists dismiss that idea. A transplant recipient might start to enjoy foods that she wasn’t able to eat before the surgery, but any similarities to the donor’s tastes would be a coincidence.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Lawrence Czer of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and Joseph Rogers of Duke University.

Video Explainer: Why Aren't There More Slam Dunks in Women's Basketball?

This video was produced from an original Explainer by Brian Palmer. Want more questions answered? You can now watch video Explainers at Slate's News Channel  on YouTube.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.