Tag Archives: memory

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.

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!

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

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