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90-летию со дня рождения Джеймса Вернона Макконнелла посвящается.
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Публикация по OMNI Magazine, 1981, 3, 59.
Photo by Dan McCoy

James V. McConnell was an American biologist and animal psychologist. He is most known for his research on learning and memory transfer in planarians conducted in the 1950's and 1960's. He was an unconventional scientist, setting up his own refereed journal, the Journal of Biological Psychology, which was published in tandem with the Worm Runner's Digest, a planarian-themed humor magazine.

His paper Memory transfer through cannibalism in planarians, published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry, reported that when planarians conditioned to respond to a stimulus were ground up and fed to other planarians, the recipients learned to respond to the stimulus faster than a control group did. McConnell believed that this was evidence of a chemical basis for memory, which he identified as memory RNA.

I woke to find myself in a totally different room. On the wall facing me were two doors - one pure white, the other jet-black. I didn't like the looks of the situation... Apparently I had to choose which of the doors was open and led to food. The other would be locked. If I jumped at the wrong door and found it locked, I'd fall into the water. I needed a bath, but I didn't relish getting it this way... The ultimate behaviorist's rightmare: He wakes up as a White Rote trapped in an extraterrestrial psychologist's operant chamber. The rest of this little scientific hallucination can be found on page 395 of Understanding Human Behavior, one the most successful colege psychology texts of all time. Its author, James V. McConnell, is a hero to a generation of psych students, as well as to his publishers, for whom he makes tons of money. Each chapter of UHB-3, as McConnell calls it, begins with the first half of an appropriate vignette. To find out how the story ends, you're supposed to read the chapter of hard science. The conclusion appears after the facts.

There are many stories: On the Other Hand introduces a chapter on the split brain with a Kafkaesque table about a dissident neurophysiologist. Before being dragged off by the secret police, he buries his treasured formula in the silent right hemisphere of a patient. Later friendly doctors decode the message by encouraging the patient to draw on the right side of the brain. In Riddle of Rage a scouting party of sentient microchips fly in for a closer look when they spy CARs, the rudiments of intelligent metallic life on the third planet around a distant star. Other titles include How to Build a Better Robot, Black Boxes and Womb Tanks, It's All in Your Mind, and I'm Crazy - You're Crazy.

By sandwiching the linear information between two slices of Gestalt, McConnell appeals to both sides of the brain - the no-nonsense left hemisphere and the poetic shape maker on the right. It works like behavior mod, says McConnell, a tall, fortyish man with a sort of wide-angle, bigger-than-life face. One might encounter this visage close-up in a Stanley Kubrick movie offering you a smoking glass of ye olde ultragiggle.

Behavior mod outlines the pattern for you, arranges the material so that your rignt hemisphere perceives, while your left learns by rote. That's what my stories are supposed to do: help the right perceive patterns and become emotionally involved while presenting the material in a form easily memorized by the left.

Although it makes sense and seems to work, one still wonders what kind of guy would use a comic-book story to ruminate on the mind/body/soul question in the middle of an introductory psych text. But McConnell is a scientist with a reputation for being less than orthodox in his research and methodology. Worse, he has been accused of being a humorist, which, to paraphrase Arthur Koestler, has unleashed

the hostility of the gray birds in the groves of academe against this bird with the too-hilarious voice.

McConnell personifies a select minority of scientists who openly – too openly – employ humor as a modus operandi. His irrepressible desire to have a good laugh has gotten him into some deep and piranha-filled water. So we posed the question: Can science and humor exist on the same plane?

I hope so, the psychologist says with an air of elegant melancholia that often hangs like a little cloud over the head of our best humorists.

But, I remind you, most people with political power don’t have a good sense of humor – in any field. New endeavors need humor, because you’re trying to unify a group; you’re fighting for you existence, or fighting an establishment. Humor doesn’t go over well; humor has too much intellect in it.

Our story – really a tragicomedy – begins in 1953 at the University of Texas, where two psychology grad students, McConnell and Robert Thompson, are conditioning freshwater flatworms to contract, or scrunch up, each time a mild shock is delivered through the water in their trough. Just before the shock, an electric light is turned on above the trough. Could the worms be taught to scrunch when they see the light – sans shock? McConnell and Thompson thought so.

The flatworm, or planarian, sometimes described as a gliding patch of slimy skin, is a fabulous creature able to divide into scores of pieces, each of which regenerates into a new worm. As the lowest organism on the phylogenic scale, it has a primitive brain and synaptic nervous system. Planaria present an elemental model on which to study learning and memory.

The two young worm runners’ results, indicating that planarians can be taught to scrunch up on cue, made no waves, McConnell went on to teach at the University of Michigan, where he took the experiment one scrunch further. He cut the worms in half, and when the tail halves had regenerated, they remembered a such about how to behave in the spotlight as the head did, and sometimes more.

If I had to do it over, I would have qualified all my statement with ‘ifs’ and ‘perhapses’ appeared dead serious, and never smiled at anything. And I would have gone mad


This bit of news raised eyebrows, especially when McConnell conjectured publicly that some chemical conditioning may take place during training that could be transmitted to succeeding generations of worms. If this should prove true for men and women as well as worms, he told Newsweek in 1959, then memory and learning would appear to have a chemical, inherited basis. With statements like this, smacking ever so faintly of Lamarckian Heresy, the atmosphere surrounding McConnell’s lab began to heat up. But there was more to come, much more. By now McConnell was an established researcher, receiving grants. At that time we began classically training a bunch of ‘victim’ planarians, McConnell recalls, guiding us down Memory Lane.

Then we chopped them up and fed the pieces to untrained cannibalistic planarians. We also fed untrained victims to a control group. After we had given both groups a couple of days to digest their meal, we trained both groups. To our delight, the planarians that had eaten educated victims responded more often than did the worms that had consumed their untrained brethren. We seemed to have transferred a memory en-gram from one animal to another!

Food for thought indeed. If you are what you eat, there’s a feast of philosophy, arts. And science awaiting us all. We have only to grind up our poets and thinkers and serve them as hors d’oeuvres at cocktail parties. And so on, McConnell began having a terrible time with the lay press, trying to explain that it didn’t work that way – for the same reason you don’t become piggish merely from consuming a ham sandwich. The information that might be encoded in the animal protein is destroyed by the digestive system in mammals before assimilation takes place. Some scientists were finding all this hard to swallow. At first the issue was mainly whether the worms could learn in the first place, rather than the more dramatic possibility that learning could be transferred. But McConnell ignored the former issue, concentrating on the suggestion that memory formation is somehow involved with the creation of new chemical molecules and that ribonucleic acid in the brain plays a role in the process. The starting outlines of a new hypothesis were beginning to form: Learning especially memory acquisition, might function by means of a rich interplay of chemicals. Even more starting: There might be a chemical code for learning – even as DNA is for genetics.

By the mid-Sixties many research groups reported success in memory transfer-using higher organisms. Brains of educated rats were ground up and injected into naive rats. The newly sophisticated rats behaved in a manner that indicated they had learned by hard experience. Paying Your Dues could become obsolete, at least for rats. Maybe not just for rats. Other experiments indicated that injections of smart-rat brain could raise the I.Q.’s of hamsters, suggestion that RNA contains components of memory and intelligence that span whole species! If rats to hamsters, why not hamsters to man, and man to rats, and so on?

Distinguished biochemist George Ungar went so far as to isolate, characterize, and synthesize a specific transferred memory: scotophobin, or fear of the dark. Ungar would actually make up batches of scotophobin, a complex polypeptide 15 to 16 amino acids long, and send it to you in a bottle. He also had a whole bunch of other phobins. But this tantalizing research went the way of the worm when Ungar died in 1977.

To date there have been thousands of successful memory-transfer experiments reported in the literature. But the subject of the chemical code for learning still can elicit violent negative responses from otherwise cool men of science. One leading artificial-intelligence honcho exploded at a lunch table recently when the 15-year-old transfer work was brought up.

Sophomoric! Ridiculous! A stage many people in neurophysiology seem to go through, and then reject quickly,

he retorted.

Yet if the results were valid, one British expert admitted, they had revolutionary implication for the understanding of how learning takes place in the brain.

The battle was waged in the periodicals and at the meetings. According to scientific historian David Travis in his paper on McConnell, Constructing Creativity: The Memory Transfer and the importance of Being Earnest, the transfer results were rejected as sloppy science, or unconscious experimenter bias, or mass hysteria. One peer review angrily denounced the work as either the biggest finding or the biggest hoax in psychology in years, and probably the later. Another esteemed researcher called a memory-transfer article in Science a branch of crap.

The one recurring complaint, Travis says, was the suspicion of subversive flippancy. The McConnell group over the years had allowed an aura of schoolboy humor to surround their investigation. And the reaction of the scientific community to this mirthful attitude was swift and vengeful. McConnell calls it autistic hostility. What brought all this offending research and its frivolous attitude to a head was a unique and irregularly published journal. It was born when McConnell’s planarian experiments became known throughout the scientific and popular press, and he subsequently was inundated with requests for information about the care and feeding of flatworms and for ideas on how to set up the experiments. His Michigan group produced a set of mimeographed instructions and dubbed it The Worm Runner’s Digest, Vol. 1, No. 1. The cover was complete with heraldic device: a two-headed worm rampant, a coronet of connected nerve cells, the S/R of Dr. Pavlov’s stimulus response, and legend Ignotum per Ignotius, which Koestler translates as

When I get through explaining this to you, you’ll know even less than when I started.

Some of the recipients of this first issue took the joke at face value and sent back their experiments – real and farcical – and the WRD was on its way. With the exception of The Journal of Irreproducible Results, McConnell says,

The Worm Runner’s Digest is the only scientific journal that knowingly publishes satire.

During its first year the Digest’s format mixed serious articles on physiological psychology with such twisted pieces as Operant Conditioning in the Domestic Darning Needle and How to Make Use of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Without Hall Trying, or such sublime pictorials as A Child’s Garden of Vectors. Each issue was shot through with cartoons of worms engaged in Socratic dialogue.

McConnell’s editorial, Worms & Things, always let the reader in on the latest theory. How old are worms? he writes in one issue.

If a worm be hatched from an egg, grow to maturity in two months, then fission into halves spontaneously and regrow into two mature worms in one month, how old are the latter individuals? And if this keeps up for an extended period of time, what can one say about age?

In later issues straight articles were separated from spoofs because scientists complained they could not tell them apart. The serious and the satirical were printed from opposite covers after that. Yes, there were some works of genius in the Digest, he mused.

Some of it’s obviously crud. But to quote Ted Sturgeon and his marvelous law, ‘Ninety percent of everything is crud.’

And the Digest was read by simply everybody in the scientific community.