The Worms!

Larry SternSurprise! I’m back already!

APA Monitor has published a great little piece by Larry Stern of Collin College (TX) about James McConnell of U. Michigan and his various attempts to show that memories are encoded by specific molecules in the brain. McConnell tried to demonstrate this by conditioning planaria  (flatworms) to respond to stimuli, and then feeding the trained worms’ nervous systems to other worms, in the hopes that the training would be expressed by the naive worms. In the end, the theory did not stand up, but for a long while there were enough positive results that it was not clear whether or not McConnell had found the elusive key to how memories are stored in the brain.

Stern writes:

The story of “McCannibal and his Mau Mau” hypothesis has become part of the folklore of psychology…. But folklore tends to caricature people and events and is lousy history….  McConnell’s planarian studies spawned a 15-year episode that tells us much about the workings of science when it is confronted — as it always is — with claims that depart in significant ways from prevailing views. Equivocal results are typical in such episodes and to jump to the conclusion that those who championed a losing cause must be poor scientists is hazardous at best. In fact, by the time the dust had settled roughly 200 independent research teams — many in the upper tiers of science — conducted memory transfer experiments, using dozens of learning paradigms and 23 types of subjects including, in addition to the flatworm and standard lab rat, octopuses, praying mantes, baby chicks, kittens and honey bees.

planarianAs much a part of the story as the unconventionality of McConnell’s theory was his flamboyance as a scientist. Shedding the typical somber self-presentation, McConnell started his own journal called the Worm Runners Digest, he regularly referred to his worms as “cannibals,” and he made extravagant claims about the possibility of memory pills in the near future.

The whole article can be found on-line here.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

5 thoughts on “The Worms!

  1. I still have fond memories of James McConnell. I remember his giving a memorable lecture on classical conditioning at my school when I was a first-year undergrad. He fired a starter’s pistol in the class as the unconditioned stimulus in his conditioning demo (good luck trying that these days). He was also a near-victim of the Unabomber but managed to escape injury (his student wasn’t so lucky).

  2. I know much about McConnell receiving a “package” from the unabomber – perhaps too much. The cover letter that accompanied the package referred to ongoing research in the history of the behavioral sciences that included his work and, knowing full-well of my research (I spent a few days interviewing him back then), McConnell “fingered” me to the feds. Another story for another day . . . 😉

  3. Dr James McConnell, did you keep the electricity on for the RAM to maintain the set triggers? Unless you can back up the electrical data of the cells, don’t the transferring cells have to keep their place by live signals? Electricity has to be maintained when cutting and pasting the cells with the data, or it gets lost, right? Joy InChrist

  4. RE: “…Feeding the trained worm’s nervous systems to other worms…”
    Cannibals in real life believe in osmosis. The Alka ? Indians of Brazil (End of the Spear movie) believed in eating to grab their enemies resources (braveness etc.) For some reason these men didn’t believe in eating woman… Anyhoo, we know that many healthy chemicals compounds break down in digestion systems. Chicken knuckles/cartilage does go to the back (glucosamine). But not other compounds (is my understanding), let alone fresh meat! Cells from other worms, for example. Isn’t there a scientific standard issue breakdown of how those chemicals are digested? In humans or flatworms or what have you? You know, the Bible of presettings for the digestive system, where it would normally file those dern papers? Even Accountants forget which GL code they give incoming funds from month to month. I would imagine there is a certain variance of where the flat worm would send certain chemicals found in it’s mouth or whatever it has…

  5. If we eat hamburger, do we think like a cow? The digestive system is going to disassemble the computer and re-use it’s components and then toss to the side any unused parts, right? (ie Worm Poopie, great for garden tomato’s).

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