Biography of Famous Scientist James V. McConnell Part 1

About the famous scientist James V. McConnell, history and biography of the maverick scientist.


After his experiments with worms had captured the attention of scientists, James Vernon McConnell added further to his reputation as a maverick professor when he took up publishing a journal which printed parodies of scientific articles along with genuine reports of current research. To some, the serious research was funnier than the intentionally humorous articles in McConnell's journal, which he called The Worm Runner's Digest.

McConnell's findings regarding the nature of memory were obtained at the University of Michigan, where he joined the psychology faculty in 1956. While other experimental psychologists ran rats through mazes to study how creatures learn and remember, McConnell chose to "run" a type of flatworm called Planaria. Planarians can multiply by fission; that is, if a worm is cut in 2, the head end will survive and grow a new hind end. While the hind end will also survive and grow a new head, including the organ that serves as a brain.

Cutting up planarians became McConnell's specialty during a series of remarkable experiments. First he announced that these simple worms were capable of learning a conditioned reflex, just as dogs did in the Pavlov experiments. A healthy worm would be exposed to a bright light which was followed immediately by an electric shock. The shock would make the worm scrunch up its body. After a sufficient number of these light-and-shock treatments, most worms would contract, rear up, or otherwise react merely upon exposure to the bright light, with no shock following. In psychological evaluation, the smarter the worm the fewer the trials required to elicit this conditioned response whenever the proper stimulus--bright light--was presented. The number of shock trails needed to elicit the response to the light alone was the measure of whether the worms knew what the light meant.

A completely naive planarian needed many shock trials before learning to scrunch when the light shone. A previously trained worm needed only a few trials; the memory returned quickly, McConnell said. Some worms never did get the hang of it.

Then Dr. McConnell reported that when he cut some trained worms and they had grown new parts, the "new" worms demonstrated that they remembered their training by quickly learning to scrunch up or writhe at the bright light. For worms whose head ends had taken part in the shock training, this seemed plausible, since if there were any memories they should reside in the brainier part of the worm. But the new worms--whose hind ends alone had been in the original training program--also showed the same recollections, so where was the seat of memory now?

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