Tag Archives: memory

Leo Postman and George Miller in the New AJP

L-R: Harry F. Harlow, Judson S. Brown, and Leo J. Postman. Copyright: Department of Psychology, UNL.

The Fall 2017 issue of the American Journal of Psychology features two articles marking the journal’s 130th anniversary. The first explores the work of experimentalist Leo Postman and the second, the contributions of George Miller to the American Journal of PsychologyFull details below.

“Leo J. Postman: Master Experimentalist,” by James S. Nairne and Michelle E. Coverdale. Abstract:

Leo J. Postman was an internationally recognized experimental psychologist whose work after World War II helped frame the modern empirical study of perception, memory, and other psychological processes. Postman was important to The American Journal of Psychology, serving as a frequent contributor, and the journal remained important to him throughout his career; in fact, he ended his research career as its co-editor. In this article, we briefly review some of his contributions to the journal and try to identify the consistent themes that defined his work. His views and his choice of topics tracked the significant theoretical issues of his time and remain a model of theoretical and empirical rigor.

“Breaking Into the Mind: George A. Miller’s Early Work in the American Journal of Psychology,” by William D. Raymond and Alice F. Healy. Abstract:

Reviewed here are the 9 scholarly articles written by George A. Miller for The American Journal of Psychology (AJP), all dated from 1944 to 1958. These articles include studies on discrimination, temporal judgments, auditory patterns, operant conditioning, animal behavior, verbal recall, and language structure. There are empirical and theoretical investigations and investigations combining both experiments and theory. Despite their breadth and the variety of subjects and procedures, all of the Miller studies in AJP can be viewed as following with behaviorist traditions rather than dealing with more complex cognition. During this time Miller’s view of psychology was changing; these studies, with their inventive methods, can also be seen as initial attempts to break into the mind, or to uncover and understand cognitive processes, in a way that had been discouraged by behaviorist traditions. The studies all also point to the need to consider the immediate contexts and long-term histories of the observer’s experiences, which implicate the broader statistical learning mechanism that is now considered to underlie human learning. The AJP articles reviewed here foreshadow the wide-ranging and profound influence Miller had on psychology and related fields of study. Miller has been described as a founder or pioneer of a number of fields, including psycholinguistics, mathematical psychology, applied psychology, cognitive science, and computational approaches to linguistic analysis. Because of his huge impact on so many areas and his eagerness to communicate psychology’s importance to others, Miller can be considered an ambassador of psychology to a wider audience.

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Special Issue on Historical Cognition’s Dilemmas and Advances

A recently released special issue of Memory Studies is dedicated to the issue of historical cognition. Guest edited by Peter Hegarty and Olivier Klein the issue explores historical cognition’s dilemmas as well as recent advances in historical cognition. As Hegarty and Klein note in their open access introduction to the special issue “social psychology has always been a somewhat liminal disciplinary endeavor, which might provide a particular vantage point from which to consider the relationship between psychology’s individual subject and historical sense-making.” Their introduction further notes,

This Special Issue presents papers that draw together recent insights about historical cognition from several social psychologists. Early psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall, Wilhelm Wundt, and Sigmund Freud described histories of “civilization” to explain adult human rationality in European and American cultures of their times. Enthusiasm for experimental methods and individual research subjects quickly widened the gap between psychological and historical explanation. Frederick Bartlett’s (1932) investigations of serial memory aimed to understand how collective memories might be sustained in cultures, but they also signaled a parting of the ways between experimental psychology and social anthropology in Britain. Psychology has since often been viewed as wedding historical scholarship—for better or worse—to theories of the individual subject, as when psychologist Lewis Terman (1941) called on historians to look to IQ tests not texts as their raw materials, or when William Langer asked the American Historical Association in 1958 to integrate psychoanalysis into historical scholarship (Runyan, 1988). Fischer (1970) looked to psychologist David McClelland’s understanding of power motives to imagine a historian’s logic without obvious fallacies. The “subjects” that psychology has offered to seduce historians’ engagement illustrate the history of both disciplines, and position our attempt at recent advances in historical cognition here, which was supported by European Cooperation in Science and Technology through COST Action IS 1205: Social psychological dynamics of historical representations in the enlarged European Union.

The full special issue can be found here.

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BBC Radio: “The Psychology of War”

As part of the programme, The War that Changed the World, BBC Radio has aired an episode on “The Psychology of War.” The episode features an expert panel and live audience discussing war’s psychological effects. As described on the BBC Radio website,

One hundred years ago World War One set the course for the twentieth century; for the countries that took part nothing would be the same again. In this worldwide series of events with the British Council, we look at the impact of the war from around the world.

The third debate of the series comes from The Imperial War Museum in London as we explore the psychology of war. What drove men to volunteer for the war? What drove them to the edge of sanity when they got there?

Historian and broadcaster Amanda Vickery is joined by a panel of experts and a live audience to explore the mental impact of fighting the war at home and abroad. World War One experts Dan Todman (Queen Mary, University of London) and Michael Roper (University of Essex) are joined by the celebrated cultural historian, Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck, University of London), who presents her specially commissioned essay, Shell Shock and the Shock of Shells.

You can listen to this episode here and explore other episodes in the series here. You can also enrol in the Open University’s accompanying free online course, “World War 1: Trauma and Memory,” here.

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New JHBS: Mine Detection Dogs, Memory Improvement, Robert Owen, & the Street Corner Society

The winter 2014 issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences is now online. Included in this issue are articles describing the development of mine detector dogs during World War Two, late-nineteenth century advice on improving natural memory, parallels between debates over Robert Owen’s role in the history of sociology and contemporary sociology, and the roots of sociologist William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“In Dogs We Trust? Intersubjectivity, Response-Able Relations, and the Making of Mine Detector Dogs,” by Robert G. W. Kirk. The abstract reads,

The utility of the dog as a mine detector has divided the mine clearance community since dogs were first used for this purpose during the Second World War. This paper adopts a historical perspective to investigate how, why, and to what consequence, the use of minedogs remains contested despite decades of research into their abilities. It explores the changing factors that have made it possible to think that dogs could, or could not, serve as reliable detectors of landmines over time. Beginning with an analysis of the wartime context that shaped the creation of minedogs, the paper then examines two contemporaneous investigations undertaken in the 1950s. The first, a British investigation pursued by the anatomist Solly Zuckerman, concluded that dogs could never be the mine hunter’s best friend. The second, an American study led by the parapsychologist J. B. Rhine, suggested dogs were potentially useful for mine clearance. Drawing on literature from science studies and the emerging subdiscipline of “animal studies,” it is argued that cross-species intersubjectivity played a significant role in determining these different positions. The conceptual landscapes of Zuckerman and Rhine’s disciplinary backgrounds are shown to have produced distinct approaches to managing cross-species relations, thus explaining how diverse opinions on minedog can coexist. In conclusion, it is shown that the way one structures relationships between humans and animals has profound impact on the knowledge and labor subsequently produced, a process that cannot be separated from ethical consequence.

“Advice for Improving Memory: Exercising, Strengthening, and Cultivating Natural Memory, 1860–1910,” by Alan F. Collins. The abstract reads,

The idea that human memory can be improved appears to be as ancient as the concept of memory itself. Continue reading New JHBS: Mine Detection Dogs, Memory Improvement, Robert Owen, & the Street Corner Society

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Toronto Talk, Oct. 9th: Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, HM

For anyone in the Toronto area, an upcoming talk at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) may be of interest. On October 9th, at 6pm, Dr. Suzanne Corkin will be speaking on her recent book, Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, HM. Corkin spent decades studying the patient popularly known as H.M., who was revealed to be Henry Molaison after his death in 2008. (See  AHP’s previous post on the fate of H.M.’s brain here.) Research with H.M., who was unable to form longterm memories following extensive brain surgery for epilepsy, was central to psychological work on how longterm memories are formed.

The event – sponsored by the Faculty of Health, York University, the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, and the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto – is free to attend but pre-registration is required. The Permanent Present Tense lecture is described as follows,

Dr. Suzanne Corkin is an esteemed memory expert and Professor Emerita of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT (Cambridge, MA). Dr. Corkin is best known for her work with one of the most famous cases in medical history, the amnesic patient Henry Gustave Molaison. In her lecture, Dr. Corkin will speak about their nearly 50-year research partnership, which taught us much of what we know today about memory. Her lecture will be followed by a signing of her recent book, Permanent Present Tense, which documents the incredible story of H.M. and his groundbreaking contributions to the science of memory.

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APA Monitor: McConnell’s Worm Runner’s Digest

The first 2013 issue of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology is now online. This month’s Time Capsule section features a piece by Larry Stern on psychologist James McConnell’s efforts to poke fun at the discipline.

In 1959, McConnell began the Worm Runner’s Digest after the appearance of his memory transfer research in the pages of Newsweek. As Stern describes,

… McConnell was inundated with letters from high school students from around the country asking where they could obtain worms for their projects and how they should go about caring for and training them. Some students, according to McConnell, demanded that he send a few hundred trained worms at once since their projects were due within days.

After answering the first few letters McConnell realized that something more efficient was needed. So he and his students wrote what amounted to a training manual describing their work and how to repeat their experiments.

McConnell firmly believed that “anyone who takes himself, or his work, too seriously is in a perilous state of mental health.” So as a joke, he affixed the name Worm Runner’s Digest to the top of the manual. Adorning the front page was a crest that one of his students designed, complete with a two-headed worm with pharynx fully exposed, a pair of diagonal stripes in the maize and blue colors of Michigan across the escutcheon of said planarian, a coronet made up of a Hebbian cell assembly, a ¥ for psychology, a homage to the stimulus-response of behaviorism, and a motto, ignotum, ignotius which, loosely translated, means “When I get through explaining this to you, you will know even less than before I started.” To top things off, McConnell labeled it Volume I, No. 1.

To McConnell’s astonishment, word of this new “journal” got out and he started receiving submissions. So he decided to “pep things up a bit” by scattering poems, jokes, satires, cartoons, spoofs and short stories more or less randomly among the more serious articles.

Other psychologists who joined in on the fun include B. F. Skinner and Harry Harlow, who each wrote satirical pieces related to their own work.

Before long McConnell received criticism that it was difficult to distinguish between the serious scientific contributions to the journal and the comedic contributions. To address this issue, in 1967 the journal was renamed the Journal of Biological Psychology, with the Worm Runner’s Digest relegated to the publication’s back pages where its pieces were printed upside down. Twelve years later, the Worm Runner’s Digest came to an end.

Read the full piece, “Psychological Hijinks,” online here.

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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. Continue reading The Worms!

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Henry Molaison Dies

Henry Molaison: For decades he has been known by virtually every student of cognitive neuroscience by his initials alone: H. M. The story is familiar to anyone who has studied memory over the past 50 years: In the 1950s, as a young man, he had a life-threatening case of epilepsy. Portions of his brain, including the hippocampus, were surgically removed in an effort to stop the seizures. The operation was effective but, before long, an unexpected and terrible side effect of the operation was discovered. H. M. was no longer able to form new long-term memories. He could remember much of his life from before the surgery. His personality remained essentially intact, but after less than a minute he would forget anything that he had experienced. He could not even remember the doctors, nurses and other people responsible for his care whom he had met dozens of times. Then Brenda Milner of the Montreal Neurological Institute discovered that H. M. could improve at complicated motor tasks such a mirror drawing, even though he would not recall having done the task before. And thus began the modern movement in memory theory to divide this central mental faculty into a set of distinct memory “systems”: implicit and explicit, procedural and declarative, and so forth. Continue reading Henry Molaison Dies

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Repressed Memory Challenge Is Met

Mclean HospitalTwo members of the Biological Psychiatry Laboratory at Mclean Hospital (affiliated with Harvard) issued a challenge in 2005: they would give $1000 US to anyone could find an account of the repression of the memory of a traumatic event published prior to 1800. Their reasoning was “if dissociative amnesia for traumatic events were a natural psychological phenomenon, an innate capacity of the brain, then throughout the millennia before 1800, individuals would presumably have witnessed such cases and portrayed them in non-fictional works or in fictional characters. ” If no such accounts could be found, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that “dissociative amnesia is not a natural neuropsychological phenomenon, but instead a culture-bound syndrome, dating from the nineteenth century.” Continue reading Repressed Memory Challenge Is Met

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