Surprise! 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.
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.
As 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.