The August 1963 issue featured A Christmas Caramel, perhaps the only extant proof that famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner had ever cracked a joke. This departure from Skinner’s renowned sober voice – a skit he wrote for a Harvard Christmas party – takes place in the office of one Dr. Skinnybox, who is interrupted from his reading of Esquire magazine by Barrelbottom, a student inquiring about graduate work in psychology. By means of a series of electrical shocks to Barrelbottom’s bottom – followed by rewards of peanuts – Skinnybox convinces Barrelbottom to study behaviorism. As the curtain falls, Skinnybox has attached a rubber hose from the peanut machine to Barrelbottom’s mouth. Skinner stage directions:
Barrelbottom now starts to type, first rather hesitantly… Occasionally he bounces off the chair: occasionally he stops to chew peanuts. Professor Skinnybox goes back to reading his Esquire.
The Digest was important in three respects, Travis says. It provided McConnell with an editorial forum: it carried bibliographies of al research relevant to the running of worms and the wider memory-transfer controversy: and it was often sent gratis to those who might be interested.
But in the minds of many influential scientists, especially those in funding capacities, the already-outrageous transfer studies were further damned by their physical proximity to the Digest’s satire and laughter. The ambiguity of humor acted like an amplifier on McConnell’s already-controversial research. By the end of the Sixties he was severed from funding and was subjected to intense derision and prejudicial treatment at meetings and elsewhere. Let’s put it this way, McConnell explained as he wheeled around the Ann Arbor campus in his Mercedes with its BEHAVE license plate. "If my overriding goal was to get the transfer material accepted and win the Nobel Prize and become famous in that sort of way. I certainly would never have started the Digest. Obviously, subconsciously or whatever that wasn’t one of my goals.
I went through an angry period in the Seventies. I had fought for four years to get grants. But I’m a person who believes in cutting my losses. In retrospect, the lack of funds forced me to go off and do other things. I never would have written UHB if Uncle Sam had continued to give me lots of cash. And the textbook has been verrry lucrative, and that means freedom.
You can straighten a worm, but the crook is in him and only waiting.
Aside from indulging in satire and parody, McConnell broke other sacred taboos. He disclosed certain mechanical and human failures in the lab. He once admitted, for instance, that his air conditioner had gone on the blink and heated up some animals. Then there was the incident involving RNA: McConnell admitted publicly that some had fallen on the floor and he had scooped it up and stuffed it back into its container. Accidents will happen, but not to scientists. Reporting that we dropped the first RNA on the floor. McConnell commented, is like admitting that one has farted in church.
At the time, though, McConnell had no idea he had so soundly violated the canons of respectability.
Although I certainly did violate them. At the same time I thought many of my attackers were not all that intelligent, and that those who were bright were blinded by prejudice and emotionality. Now, however, I would probably view them as defending their egos. We did rather rip apart some deeply felt, almost religious beliefs about ‘the mind.’
Most neurophysiologists in the Fifties and Sixties spent their lives studying the brain with electrical probes, thinking chemical events to be derivative:
The memory-transfer research contradicted not one, but at least a dozen, of the acts of faith on which neuropsychology had been founded,
We might as well have presented the pope with evidence that Mary was a whore, Jesus was a homosexual, and God was a black woman living in South Dakota. For we had really pulled the props out from under most scientists who thought they knew what the mind was. And the soul.
I suspect that if the response to our work had been more logical and less emotional, the Digest would never have been born and my own image as a humorist would have been confined to classroom iconoclasms.
Bernard Agranoff and Roger Sperry are only two of the eminent neuroscientists who told McConnell that if he were right, all of their life’s work was for naught. Sir John Eccles went further. As a devout Catholic, he worked out the mind/body/soul problem in a personal way. According to McConnell, Eccles believes in free will, yet he apparently had early difficulties resolving this concept with mechanistic physiology. So he put God at the synapse as a sort of Brownian movement of molecules. He once told me. McConnell remembered,
he couldn’t believe in my work because it violated everything he knew about God. At the time I grew furious with him. I now wish I’d had better sense.
Today there is growing suspicion that thoughts and feelings may one day be traced to chemical events. Such thinking makes the transfer effect less dubious. Very little is known about what makes the brain tick. New neural connections are made, but no one has yet explained how.
I think what we were doing was tapping into chemicals that are released from one neuron to another,
putting into the system chemicals that caused neural growth to occur in a patterned way. This suggests that the proteins are actually ‘brief revisions’ of the neural blueprint you were born with. In the animal studies the injected RNA ‘told’ the neurons what new synaptic connections to make for learning to occur. When this blueprints were transferred from one animal to another, they gave the creature the molecular pattern it would otherwise have had to build up through experience.
But the field has gone by me,
I wouldn’t know a molecule if it jumped up and bit me. What must be done next will be done by biochemists and neurophysiologists, and the next breakthroughs will reveal what the hell does happen chemically in the brain.
What do researchers in the biological basis of behavior say? Most restrict themselves to investigations at the neurotransmitter level. New York University professor of neurology and physiology David Quartermain admits that he is skeptical of the transfer theory, but he is willing to grant that
there was some suggestion that something was transferred in those studies.
I don’t think they can be discounted as wrong,
nor do I think McConnell and Ungar are charlatans. I think perhaps the something transferred might be a motivational factor, but given the structure of the mammalian nervous system – with all its exquisite detail – these complicated structural relationships suggest memory storage is more complex than we know now.
Nor does Quartermain, who is investigating protein-synthesis inhibition in the brain and looking for a way to ease memory disorders, discount the possibility that protein is a key element in memory.
There’s got to be something to produce the change, if that change is durable. There have been some very elegant and informative experiments in which you train animals and see whether there are changes in the species of RNA or protein after training. Some of these experiments suggest that there is. I think this is area that will be understood within the next ten, twenty, or fifty years.
McConnell wryly points out that some RNA experiments have been done on humans – in organ-transplant recipients.
It’s seldom talked about in literature, and I can’t give you any data on it, but it will be confirmed by any doctor working in the field. About fifty to sixty percent of the transplant patients show temporary psychotic symptoms after transplant. In kidney transplants it’s closer to ninety-five percent. No psychiatrist or psychologist measured them for possible memory shadows: I’m sure they’re picking up memories, or behavioral tendencies, from the donor.
Never fearful of speculation. McConnell thoughtfully entertains some farfetched ideas – such as learning pills. He will imagine a time when drugstores might carry bottles of protein compounds or RNA to enhance learning of calculus, say, or tax accounting, or anything else. Not everything, he cautions.
What I would say is that we’ll be able to specify what family of chemicals is involved, for example, in learning Chinese. Then we’d synthesize them and give you daily injections, enabling you to learn Chinese five to ten times faster than normal. And to remember it better.
Science is, to a far greater extent than most scientists realize, the behavior of human beings who suffer the same personality quirks and fits of temper that everyone else experiences.
The years of worm running are behind him: the Digest terminated after 20 years for lack of funds. McConnell now turns his attention increasingly to teaching, writing, and the formulation of a unified-field theory of the brain, though he’s too modest to call it that. This quest includes a decade-long wrestling match with the redoubtable Skinner over the existence of the mind.
When McConnell was a trembling grad student, Skinner told him that the mind is a theoretical concept that we are better off abandoning. McConnell went away to mull that one over for 20 years.
Today he says,
John Watson made the animal brain into an adding machine: Skinner turned it into a computer.
But Skinner still won’t look into the ‘box.’ With our knowledge of the hemispheres, we can now go much further into the head than Skinner is willing to go.
At one lecture I pointed out to him that he can’t explain what he does when he trains a pigeon. He sets a goal for the bird, then directs its movements toward achieving that goal. In the interim he rewards the animal until it attains the goal. The trouble is, the goal is in Skinner’s mind. It does not exist anywhere else.
Skinner has never explained how an individual changes himself or modifies his own behavior. McConnell says,
I say the left hemisphere is the pigeon and the right is the ‘Skinner’ that sets the goals, anticipates what the consequences of actions will be, selectively reinforces behaviors that are ‘emitted’ – Skinner’s word – by the left hemisphere. Skinner doesn’t like that at all.
Next serve, Dr. Skinner.
McConnell thinks back over all the weird battles he’s somehow found himself in.
I suppose my only regret is that I still can’t tie all of the memory-transfer data and hemisphere studies into one pretty package. But the thing I’m proudest of – even more than my so-called honesty – is the fact that I didn’t push the transfer effect more than I did. If I have one talent, it’s for propagandizing. Look at my textbook – it’s a six-hundred-page commercial for my version of the scientific method. I flatter myself that I could have created a ‘school,’ or at least a large set of disciples, had I chosen to play the guru’s role. But at some deep level a little voice tells me that if the facts don’t sell themselves, they may not be valid.
Yet McConnell is one of a certain endangered subspecies of scientists, poets, inventors who feel the faint, nagging suspicion that they are born too soon. By just a few years. His whole theory will fit together in neat, interlocking pieces anytime now.
Of course, had I understood ten years ago what I do now, much of controversy would never have taken place. Having been stocked to the core by the Nobel laureates, I’m sure I defended my own ego by resorting to humor. Part of my wit was bitter attack. But part of it was little more than the same submission response that a young wolf shows to the pack leader when he bares his throat in self-defense. Better to be laughed at than crucified, if you know what I mean.
Would he do the whole thing over again?
Yes, except I would have qualified all my earlier statements with theoretical garbage and a barrage of ‘ifs’ and ‘perhapses.’ I never would have used the term memory transfer. ‘Transfer of response bias’ is so delightfully neutral. I would have appeared dead serious and refused to smile at anything. And I would have gone mad.
Will James V. McConnell usher in the new order, construct the paradigm shift in psychology? Will this maverick be seen as a pioneer who helped initiate structural changes in the study of the brain?
Perhaps, like the coyote in North American mythology, McConnell is the trickster who, in his ambiguous role and mischievous duality, is a crucial mediator in problem solving. The temptation is to take a long run along the worm’s magic electrified field, to sweep out science’s Augean stables with a good belly laugh.