Worm Running

On September 15, 1985, a seemingly innocent package was delivered to the home of Dr. James V. McConnell, then-professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.  His assistant, Nicklaus Suino, opened the package as Dr. McConnell looked on.  The resulting explosion resulted in Suino sustaining injuries to his arms and abdomen.  Dr. McConnell was more fortunate although he suffered a hearing loss as a result of the blast.  It remains unclear exactly why Theodore Kaczynski (a.k.a. the Unabomber) targeted Dr. McConnell as he had others in the scientific community but Dr. McConnell's colourful career may provide a clue. 

Considered a maverick in his time, James V. McConnell's career was marked by his unconventional research and outspokenness.  In his most famous research project, he classically conditioned Planaria (flatworms) to react to bright lights using electric shocks.  He then cut up his research subjects and fed them to other Planaria and he found that the cannibal Planaria learned to respond to the bright light more rapidly than control Planaria did.  In his classic paper Memory transfer through cannibalism in planaria which was published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, he suggested that memory was chemically based and that the memory transfer had been accomplished through what he termed memory RNA.  While it was an intriguing finding at the time, other researchers have not been able to replicate his results and the concept of memory transfer fell by the wayside. 

Despite the failure of his memory transfer research,James McConnell's tenure at the University of Michigan from 1956 to his retirement in 1988 was marked by his candour on issues that mattered to him as well as his quirky humour.  In addition to launching the Journal of Biological Psychology, he also started the Worm-Runner's Digest (a humour magazine with a planaria theme).  It may well have been McConnell's views on human behaviourl modification as outlined in his textbook Understanding Human Behavior that led to his being targeted by the Unabomber. 

I have a personal anecdote about James V. McConnell that I feel inclined to share (it's my blog, after all).  When I was a first year psychology student at the University of Windsor (just across the river from Michigan), Dr. McConnell gave a lecture on classical conditioning that was distinctly memorable.  He explained the difference between a conditioned stimulus (CS) and an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) by firing off a starter's pistol whenever he shouted the phrase "CS" in a crowded auditorium.  The idea was to condition us to flinching whenever he uttered that phrase (it was a more innocent time).  We picked up the finer points of classical conditioning pretty quickly, let me tell you.  I wanted to compliment him afterward on an excellent lecture but I was a shy undergraduate then (plus he had a gun). 

Dr. McConnell passed away in 1990 and psychology became a little less colourful with his death.  I have often thought that modern psychology tends to be a little too serious for its own good.  Mavericks like James V. McConnell are all too rare these days.   


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