Mark Rilling. The MYSTERY of the VANISHED CITATIONS
James McConnell's Forgotten 1960s Quest for Planarian Learning, a Biochemical Engram, and Celebrity
McConnell was a charter member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and his stories were good enough to appear in magazines for science fiction. In his story, "Learning Theory," (McConnell, 1965), McConnell is the protagonist who is abducted during the preparation of a lecture on learning theory onto an interstellar labship to become a subject, confined to a series of chambers that resemble the Skinner box, T-maze, and Lashley jumping stand. After first behaving according to the predictions of learning theory, McConnell realizes that he will be returned to Ann Arbor if he misbehaves by violating the predictions of his captors' theory of learning. McConnell was an iconoclast, and his story is a spoof on learning theory in 1960.
After the loss of grant support produced the demise of the planarian research project around 1971, McConnell wrote a very innovative textbook of introductory psychology (McConnell, 1974a). Given his background in science fiction, it was natural for McConnell to blend fiction with the factual material of a textbook. To capture student interest, a unique feature of McConnell's text was a short story wrapped around the psychological meat of each chapter (McConnell, 1978). The fictional stories were deliberately written to avoid gender and ethnic bias in language (McConnell, 1973).
For his chapter on memory, McConnell (1983) wrote a fictional version of the Thompson and McConnell (1955) study called "Where Is Yesterday?" The heroes of the story were students who were running an experiment on planarian learning. The antagonist was an establishment teacher of the students called Sauerman. These characters were obviously inspired by Thompson and McConnell's experience with Bitterman. Notwithstanding McConnell's quotation at the beginning of this article, he rewrote history by cutting Bitterman out of the origins of planarian learning while incorporating into the fictional account the very control Bitterman had required for his endorsement.
To readers of McConnell's (1983) introductory textbook, he and Thompson appeared as antiestablishment youth heroes of the 1960s who single-handedly took on the scientific establishment of learning theory from a laboratory in a kitchen sink of an apartment in Austin, Texas, with a budget of $3.89 for equipment and then, somewhat like Horatio Alger, earned fame and fortune with federal research grants. McConnell's story had a kernel of truth: Planarian learning really did begin in McConnell's kitchen sink. McConnell gave Bitterman the fictional name, Sauerman. McConnell wreaked his revenge on Bitterman for the low opinion of his article in the following lines:
Here, McConnell's fiction deprives Bitterman of the due credit for originally suggesting a planarian preparation.
In the fictional study, McConnell (1983) demonstrated after a delay of almost 20 years that he really did understand Bitterman's lesson about the appropriate control groups for classical conditioning. In his fictional version, McConnell added the unpaired control group recommended by his former mentor, Bitterman. This control, actually run by Baxter and Kimmel (1963), was not present in the original Thompson and McConnell study.
The moral that McConnell chose for the fictional story was a lesson about the importance of control groups. How ironic that McConnell was often accused by critics of running experiments that were poorly controlled!
Most scientists probably consider their task complete when an article is finally in press. Because the public does not read scientific journals, McConnell believed that a scientist also has an obligation to communicate significant findings to the public through the mass media. Such communication requires skills in public relations, a field in which few psychologists have expertise. McConnell had an edge because he worked in radio and television before his career as a psychologist. He cultivated the press throughout his career as a psychologist, and he thought that professional scientists should cooperate with the press as much as professional athletes (McConnell, 1967b). McConnell was not only a scientist, but also a very successful science writer and pop psychologist. McConnell's media strategy is best described by the person who knew him best, his personal secretary and business manager of The Worm Runner's Digest, Marlys Schutjer (personal communication, January 7, 1995):
For most scientists, the news is the discovery, the original data presented in the article. Journalists also want to know from scientists about their discoveries, but there is more to news than just discovery. For research on animals, journalists also want to know about potential applications of scientific findings to humans. News sometimes involves predicting the future, so journalists often ask scientists for forecasts. In a modern culture permeated with science, the public expects a scientist to assume the role of a prophet. McConnell was a futurist who believed in a behavioral revolution similar to the industrial revolution, so his media work often contained predictions that went well beyond the data. The problem with scientitle journalism is that, unlike the editors of American Psychological Association (APA) journals, journalists do not provide peer review. They are not experts on the science.
Benjamin's work on the history of psychology's public image from the 1880s through the beginning of World War II revealed that psychologists promised more than they could deliver, a situation that fueled public distrust (Benjamin, 1986, p. 945). The APA has long encouraged coverage of its annual meeting by the media, but Benjamin's work revealed that, historically, the coverage has often been sensational, a tradition McConnell continued.
McConnell's work on retention following regeneration in planaria provides a case study in sensational journalism and illustrates how his media work escaped the normal mechanisms of peer review. When McConnell submitted an article (McConnell, Jacobson, & Kimble, 1959) on retention following regeneration to Harry Harlow, editor of the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, his cover letter contained the following statement:
In his acceptance letter, Harlow gracefully insisted that McConnell delete the speculative material from the discussion so as to comply with journal policy (Harlow, letter, April 23, 1958). Thus, peer review restricted McConnell's ability to speculate in the pages of the journals of the APA. The irrepressible McConnell sought other venues for speculation. The annual APA meeting in 1959 provided an opportunity.
How did McConnell catapult an arcane topic in comparative psychology, retention following regeneration in planaria, to an international news story? First, for the audience of psychologists, he (McConnell, Jacobson, & Maynard, 1959) speculated about a memory molecule; then, for the press, he speculated about a memory pill. When a planarian is cut in half, each half regenerates in about two weeks to form two regenerated planaria. After cutting a planarian in half, the head was conditioned. Repeating the surgery twice, on first- and then on secondgeneration animals, produced a third-generation planarian in which the nervous system was entirely regenerated compared with the organisms that experienced Pavlovian conditioning. When the third-generation animals regenerated from the tail showed savings, McConnell concluded that the engram was biochemical, not neural as Lashley had supposed. The headline for the story became "How Tails Remember."
Just a few weeks after the APA meeting, Newsweek ran a prominent story indicating that McConnell had discovered that memory and learning appear to have a chemical inherited basis ("Animal Life," 1959, p. 110). McConnell never mentioned applications to humans in his talk, yet the readers of Newsweek were promised that It may be that in the schools of the future students will facilitate the ability to retain information with chemical injections (p. 110). McConnell (1974b) later recalled the Newsweek story as a a tongue in cheek article, a joke not shared with his readers.
McConnell's next big break in scientific journalism was provided by Arthur Koestler (1965), the British novelist, social critic, and scientific journalist. Koestler and McConnell became friends when Koestler visited Ann Arbor on a personal quest for an experience of LSD. Koestler had a bad trip with LSD, but he was impressed with McConnell. Koestler was one of the 20th century's great writers, and he wrote a superb article for the London Observer that was reprinted in the United States in The Washington Post. For scientists, the news was that invertebrates could learn, but inherited memory, not learning, was the element of the story that was emphasized by Koestler and the media. The figure for the story had the following caption: How a Worm's Tail Inherits Memory: University of Michigan Researchers Use Flatworms to Demonstrate How Learning May Be Inherited. In The Washington Post, the headline for the study was Michigan Crawlers Are Crossing Up Mendel and Some Genetic Heresies Are Suggested by Experiments in Ann Arbor. The media wrapped planarian learning with a bizarre cachet about inherited memory. The public was not let in on the inside s tory - that language McConnell borrowed from genetics about successive generations was metaphorical, so a casual reader could easily have been misled into believing a story about a Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics.
In 1964, the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine of middle America, carried a feature story on McConnell (Bird, 1964). By 1964, McConnell had moved from regeneration to cannibalism, so now the public relations effort switched to the new work on memory transfer. The magazine told readers (Bird, 1964) that
McConnell was one of the first psychologists to recognize the potential of radio and television for public education. Prior to receiving his PhD, McConnell worked in radio and television as a disc jockey and script writer. During the 1960s, Steve Allen was one of the pioneers of the television talk show. His shows were seen by millions. The script for McConnell's appearance on the Steve Allen Show (Moskowitz, 1964) was simply a televised version of the McConnell story in the Saturday Evening Post. McConnell carried his apparatus to Los Angeles for the taping, so millions of viewers heard a lecture from McConnell about Pavlovian conditioning in invertebrates. However, the price for communicating the basic science was packaging the top and bottom of the show with wild science-fiction speculation about memory pills, predictions about the future of man, and showbiz hype.
McConnell was extremely skillful in calibrating his rhetoric to his diverse audience, even to the extent that his scientific writing and private letters to individuals sometimes contradicted the impression left by his media work. McConnell generalized freely from planaria to humans when his audience was the readers of Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post. When writing for a scientific audience, he cautioned that one obviously should not generalize these results to the human level too readily (McConnell, 1967a, p. 7). Although McConnell's media work made it appear that memory pills were just around the corner, individuals who wrote to McConnell requesting information on where to obtain memory pills received a very conservative, cautious form letter (McConnell, January 14, 1966), which stated that the memory molecule is merely an assumption on our part... At the moment, there is no such thing as a memory pill, McConnell's strategy of publicity at any price was a double-edged sword. The publicity probably attracted some scientists to planarian learning, but McConnell's flair for speculation put him on the fringe of scientific respectability.
Evaluating McConnell's public relations blitz for planarian learning and memory from the vantage point of 30 years is difficult. To market his ideas to a mass audience, McConnell connected planarian learning to the American myth of the quick, easy, simple technological fix for complex problems. McConnell knew when he was kidding, but his less sophisticated mass audience could easily have been misled. By appealing directly to a mass audience, McConnell escaped the peer review that would have tempered his hype. He outmatched the few dissenters with charisma.
The profession does not have a mechanism for providing peer review for the attempts of psychologists to popularize the discipline. Because psychologists have a First Amendment right to express their views on psychological topics to the public as they see fit, the problem of how to popularize psychology does not have a simple solution. Fidelity to the peer-reviewed literature is proposed as an ethical standard for evaluating coverage of psychological topics by the media. When a topic is controversial, the media could present alternative viewpoints, dissenting opinions, and heavy doses of old-fashioned scientific skepticism. The coverage of planarian learning by the media provides lessons of contemporary relevance. Although the coverage of contemporary neuroscience by the media is well beyond the scope of this article, basic research on neural mechanisms of memory is still sometimes accompanied by speculation about a memory pill (Service, 1994).
Our graduate institutions do not provide psychologists with training in the art and ethics of public relations. This represents a failure to build public support for science. Many responsible psychologists shun the media and are even reluctant to cooperate with professional science writers because of a desire to avoid the sensational. By their silence, such scientists bear some responsibility for the distorted messages about psychology that reach the public through the media.
McConnell's name is inevitably linked with the infamous The Worm Runner's Digest, McConnell's house organ. Today McConnell would have set up a Web site on the World Wide Web, but there was no Web site in McConnell's day, so he founded his own journal. The journal is hard to pigeonhole. It is funny and strange: an improbable, flawed, and ultimately unworkable combination of a humor magazine and a scientific journal. It is one of the great cultural relics of psychology from the 1960s, a scientific incarnation of the counterculture. Cmiel (1994), a social historian of the counterculture of the 1960s, analyzed the rhetoric of the counterculture and observed that it represented an attack on the prevailing norms of discourse. For McConnell, the rhetoric of the scientific establishment was serious, so as an antiestablishment scientist he countered with humor.
The Digest was a counterculture version of the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology and was born in the burst of public enthusiasm for planarian learning that followed the story that appeared in Newsweek in September 1959 ("Animal Life"). Below the masthead, the digest was identified as An Informal Journal of Comparative Psychology. The idea was to provide a clearinghouse for research with planarians, that is, to publish pilot studies before final versions were published in traditional scientific journals. At first, a clear consequence of McConnell's (1959) editorial policy was that articles would escape the rigorous peer review of the establishment journals. After the Digest was founded, McConnell never again published an article in the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. The Digest soon became a home for memory transfer research. At first, the ideas about memory transfer that McConnell placed in the Digest were taken very seriously by other scientists until "failure to replicate" letters and articles in Science consigned memory transfer to the scientific fringe.
In addition to the serious science, the Digest was clearly part of a counterculture effort to poke fun at the scientific establishment. The masthead of each volume of the Digest included a shield with a two-headed planarian, below which was a Latin inscription Ignotum per Ignotius, translated humorously as the unknown explained through the still more unknown. The problem was that as the head of the Planarian Research Laboratory at one of the finest research institutions ever assembled and as a scientist whose research grants were subsidizing the Digest, McConnell (1961b) was attacking himself because he was part of the scientific establishment.
The scientists who published the serious articles in the Digest wanted to receive credit from others for their work. Citation by others is one of the clearest ways of providing credit. One issue that surfaced early was Does one dare cite an article from The Worm Runner's Digest? (McConnell, 1960, p. 3) in a peer-reviewed journal. For some editors, the answer was clearly no. McConnell was never able to achieve a satisfactory resolution between his sense of humor and his sense of science. McConnell's first solution was to put the serious articles at the beginning of the journal and the satire at the end. When the serious authors of the scientific articles complained that abstracting services refused to consider citation for any article that appeared in a journal with such a strange title as The Worm Runner's Digest, McConnell twinned the journal. The front half was called The Journal of Biological Psychology, but the back half, which was published upside down, was The Worm Runner's Digest. Suddenly, libraries wanted to subscribe to The Journal of Biological Psychology, and Psychological Abstracts requested a copy of this new journal for abstracting (McConnell, 1969). By 1967, McConnell announced a policy of peer review for both journals; thus, even McConnell was forced to adopt a policy of peer review. McConnell poured thousands of dollars over the years from his own pocket to keep the Digest alive, so the journal represented a financial loss for him. In his closing editorial, he recognized that it is impossible to publish a journal these days without the backing of some organization (McConnell, 1979, p. 1).
McConnell was a precursor of the neuroscientists who took up the biochemistry of memory where he left off. McConnell only got inside his organism with biochemical rhetoric, never with a valid neurophysiological technique. Today planaria are no longer used in research in the biochemistry of learning, so McConnell's planarian learning program represents the end of a line.
However, the torch of the search for the engram was passed to the next generation. The location of the books in the library at Michigan State University provides a metaphor for this historical transition. The Worm Runner's Digest was passed to history when it ceased publication in 1979. In this library, a few feet away from the last volume of the Digest, is the first volume of The Journal of Neuroscience, which began publication in 1981. No one could ever confuse The Journal of Neuroscience with a humor magazine. That journal was published by the Society for Neuroscience, and in its first volume there was an article on classical conditioning of a simple withdrawal reflex in the invertebrate, Aplysia californica, by Carew, Waiters, and Kandel (1981). After a quarter of a century, this article is a worthy successor to Thompson and McConnell's (1955) first article on planarian classical conditioning. There is no reference to McConnell or the controversy over planarian learning, but Carew et al. followed in McConnell's footsteps with the following procedures: visual observation of the dependent variable; five control groups, each of which had been used earlier in invertebrate learning; and the testing, which was carried out using a blind procedure. The lessons from the planarian controversy had been mastered by those who were about to write the next chapter in the search for the engram by watching siphons withdraw instead of planaria turn. With settlement of the invertebrate learning controversy by the specification of control groups, McConnell liberated the next generation. The dream of a Nobel prize for unraveling the biochemistry of memory now belongs to a new group.