Mark Rilling. The MYSTERY of the VANISHED CITATIONS
James McConnell's Forgotten 1960s Quest for Planarian Learning, a Biochemical Engram, and Celebrity
On November 15, 1985, James McConnell became the victim of an assassination attempt by a serial bomber who is known to the media as the Unabomber because his earlier victims included professors and executives of airlines. At this writing, a man suspected of being the Unabomber has been arrested. Fortunately, McConnell was not killed, but his hearing was impaired by the soundof the blast (McConnell, 1987).
As far as I am able to determine, this sad episode marked the first time in the history of psychology that the murder of a psychologist was attempted, by an individual who did not know his victim, for the sole reason that the would-be assassin found the psychologist's ideas offensive. McConnell was the intended victim of the bombing, but the Unabomber's real target was applied psychology, specifically behavior modification. Unfortunately, the Unabomber selects his targets from those scientists who popularize technology with bold, simplified rhetoric that includes sweeping predictions about how technology will change society ("Bomber Links an End," 1995). McConnell wrote two magazine articles about behavior modification, "Psychoanalysis Must Go" for Esquire (McConnell, 1968) and "Criminals Can Be Brainwashed Now" for Psychology Today (McConnell, 1970), either of which could have caught the Unabomber's eye. The Unabomber targeted McConnell because he popularized behavior modification ("Serial Bomber," 1995).
After McConnell's planarian research program collapsed, he turned to B. F. Skinner's brand of behavior modification, but his contributions to the field were not distinguished. Much as Thomas Huxley was a bulldog for Darwin's theory of evolution, James McConnell used his considerable rhetorical and public relations skills to popularize behavior modification. Just as John Watson oversold behaviorism during the 1920s in the media (Todd, Dewsbury, Logue, & Dryden, 1994), James McConnell wrote articles for the popular press that oversold behaviorism during the 1960s.
McConnell (1967a), who wrote that the entire history of scientific psychology may be viewed as a continuing search for better controls (pp. 25 - 26), failed to generalize this truism from planarian learning to behavior modification. McConnell naively believed that the application of a behavioristic conception of reward and punishment would solve the social problems of crime and mental illness. He failed to recognize that the evaluation of a behavioral modification program required control groups.
Esquire (Polsgrove, 1995) tried to be funny about the 1960s, so the magazine provided an ideal forum for McConnell. In 1968, when its 35th anniversary coincided with political assassinations, Esquire commissioned a set of articles around the theme Salvaging the Twentieth Century. McConnell was commissioned to write not only about what was wrong with psychology, but also about what was worth salvaging. McConnell's piece was Psychoanalysis Must Go (McConnell, 1968), an article accompanied by a drawing in which Freud, his diploma, and his couch were caught in free fall against the background of a multistory, dingy, office building. After an unsupported, bald assertion that psychoanalysis doesn't really help the patient at all (McConnell, 1968, p. 280), McConnell went on to predict that behavior modification would eliminate the need for mental hospitals and prisons. His article concluded with the following predictions:
Mental hospitals as such will probably disappear in the next twenty years or so... Indeed, we should be able to discover methods of retraining criminals that will be so powerful we can guarantee that, once released, the prisoners will be most unlikely to commit a crime again. (McConnell, 1968, p. 287)
However, history shows that behavior modification led to the disappearance of neither crime nor mental illness.
By overselling behavior modification as a panacea for crime, McConnell helped plant the seeds for the public disillusionment with psychological interventions that haunts our profession today. McConnell did not realize that his overoptimism set a trap for the next generation of applied psychologists. Today, a social critic could say that these programs were not as effective as promised.
Brown (1992) demonstrated that the promoters of early applied psychology often drew metaphors from more prestigious professions such as medicine, as when the early promoters of IQ tests compared the IQ tests with thermometers. Because physics had high prestige from the nuclear weapons developed during World War II and because McConnell (1973) also knew that scary stories made news, he combined fear and the metaphor of the atomic bomb as a public relations tool to sell behavior modification when he wrote the following: The techniques of behavioral control make even the hydrogen bomb look like a child's toy. (McConnell, 1970, p. 74). In Psychoanalysis Must Go, McConnell frightened his readers with a vision of an ascendant behavioral revolution so powerful and so pervasive it's doubtful that your life will ever be quite the same again (McConnell, 1968, p. 176). Totalitarian, antidemocratic threats also scared the American public. In a book devoted to the cultural significance of American psychology following World War II, Herman (1995) noted that No science poked more holes in democratic ideals than psychology. (p. 23). McConnell knew that he could scare his readers by comparing behavioral engineers with an Orwellian vision of a totalitarian state. Therefore, he ended his editorial in Psychology Today with a vision of a behavioral engineer with a license to redesign American society along anticivil liberties principles: Today's behavioral psychologists are the architects and engineers of the Brave New World (McConnell, 1970, p. 74).
With his most provocative statement, McConnell wove prophecy, behavior modification, and antidemocratic rhetoric into a very scary, antidemocratic scenario:
McConnell lived in a period in which the popular culture was saturated with revolutionary rhetoric (Farber, 1994). In the United States during the 1960s, there was rhetoric of a sexual revolution, a Black power revolution, a revolution in the culture of popular music called rock'n'roll, and the Vietnam War produced calls for a political revolution. Therefore, it is not surprising that McConnell, who was closely attuned to popular culture, would adopt revolutionary rhetoric to advance his views. As a Skinnerian behaviorist, McConnell could honestly write that Today's revolutionary concept is that man's behavior can be studied, and explained, in objective terms without any necessary reference to supernatural or spiritual or mentalistic entities. 'Mind'... is as useless an explanatory concept to today's scientific psychologist as the mythical element 'phlogiston' that chemists once believed caused all fires. (McConnell, 1968, p. 176)
McConnell caught a high-water mark of behaviorism, just before its ebb and the rise of modern cognitive psychology.
The history of invertebrate learning illustrates how ideas are assimilated by the scientific community. During the 1930s, invertebrates were considered little robots, guided by instincts, in which the ability to learn was, at most, ephemeral. During the 1960s, James McConnell, a creative, charismatic comparative psychologist, used the media and revolutionary rhetoric from the counterculture to glamorize planarian learning and to attack the view of the scientific establishment that invertebrates could not learn. McConnell used a Pavlovian conditioning paradigm. When the adequacy of the early data was challenged by critics, McConnell and others caught up in the espirit de corps for planarian learning introduced control groups that are still used today for Pavlovian conditioning. Although his memory-transfer paradigm for studying the biochemical basis of memory was a failure, McConnell has not received the credit he deserves for establishing invertebrate learning. Today, invertebrate learning is so well established that citations to the earlier work are no longer considered necessary. Replication and peer review worked well for evaluating McConnell's scientific ideas.
Unfortunately, peer review does not provide a mechanism for regulating the popularization of psychological ideas by the media because journalists and the producers of television shows are not experts on the science. Because psychologists have a First Amendment right to express their views on psychological topics as they see fit, the problem of how to popularize psychology without misleading the public does not have a simple solution. As a celebrity-scientist, McConnell presented the mass audience of television, radio, and the popular press with a mixture of basic scientific information about Pavlovian conditioning in invertebrates, futuristic predictions about a memory pill, and entertainment. As a science writer, McConnell promised the public more than he could deliver. After the collapse of the planarian project, McConnell became a shill for B. E Skinner's brand of behavior modification. A behavioral engineer could guarantee that a suitably retrained prisoner with a new personality would never commi t a crime. Ultimately, McConnell became more adept at publicity than in providing original contributions to the science. It appears that McConnell's public relations efforts on behalf of behavior modification led to an assassination attempt on him by the Unabomber, a Luddite opposed to behavioral engineering.
McConnell deserves to be remembered not only for his scientific creativity, but also because he was one of our field's great popular writers. The public expects prophecy from its scientists. However, McConnell did pay a cost. He provided the public with the prophecy they expected and received the fleeting fame that comes from the publicity of the moment, but at the price of professional ostracism. Fidelity to the peer-reviewed literature is proposed as an ethical standard for evaluating coverage of psychological topics for and by the media.
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If you have ever wished that you could take a pill and become a little smarter, then this might be just the thing for you!
According to this article I found over at KnowledgeNuts, there is research that supposedly proves that cannibalism could just be the key to gaining more knowledge. Imagine being able to eat your way to smartness! Might be just the thing for those having trouble in college, ya know?
Some Animals Can Consume Knowledge Through Cannibalism
By Flamehorse on Wednesday, April 9, 2014
The above statement got everyone looking for proof, because even a rotter of a movie can’t throw around scientific statements without there being some truth to them. It turns out that this fact is a fact, true, and very difficult to believe. Experiments from the 1960s show that it even works in rats and mice.
The scientist who came up with this experiment is Dr. James V. McConnell, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan (USA) in the 1960s, who had a hunch that planarians (flatworms) could be trained to run mazes. He proceeded to do so. He first trained them to be afraid of the heat of a bright light, which, after many attempts, made them curl up to protect themselves. Soon they were curling up whenever they felt the heat or saw the light.
Then he chopped them up and fed them to planarians unaccustomed to the bright light and heat. This second group curled up the first time he shone the light on them. McConnell was naturally thrilled and took the experiment to the next level. He taught a group of planarians to run a maze. This took a long time of course, since planarians are very simple animals, and the species in question was microscopic.
After 150 attempts, the flatworms could find their way correctly every time. McConnell pronounced them knowledgeable of how to run the maze. Then he first tried cutting the head off one worm and grafting it onto another. This didn’t work because the head wouldn’t stay on. Then he ground up this batch of worms and tried injecting them into a second group. This failed because the worms were about the same size as the point of the needle, which crushed them.
He might have been stumped at ths point, had it not been for a worm enthusiast named Jay Boyd Best, who wrote him a letter suggesting that feed the worms to a particular species of cannibalistic planarian. So McConnell acquired some specimens of this species of flatworm and fed the trained group to this new group. The new group was able to run the maze correctly the first time, but not correctly every time until they practiced 100 times. He trained a separate control group to run the maze, and this group required about 150, just like the group he ground up.
McConnell became famous for a time, even though the very premise of his research seemed too much like a Frankenstein story to grab the scientific community. He did, however, receive a fast promotion to full professor and made it onto some science shows like Watch Mr. Wizard. Scientists who found his work interesting then took the next step, performing the same experiment with mice and rats, and they found that it still worked.
Such experiments continue to this day and continue to raise eyebrows.
Now I don't know this for sure but I think it might be more than a little time before these "smart pills" would ever be on the market. I have to admit that there are more than a few folks I think would benefit from something along these lines! Heck, we could start with passing them out in D.C. and go from there, ya know? Couldn't hurt!
Coffee out on the patio this morning. I'll share some sausage gravy and fried 'taters!