The Harvard Review

From the Shelf

The editors of the Harvard Review have courageously turned the current issue of their magazine over to a group of scientists interested in the problems of psycho-physiology. To attract sensitive humanists, however, they have chosen to title the issue "A New Psychology" and they hasten to assure their non-technical readers that the approaches to the problem are more significant than the facts that are presented. Psychophysiologists consider only the material properties of mind. And what makes their work so fascinating is that it revives the hoary mechanism-vitalism controversy, and suggests that the problems of free will may be placed upon an empirical footing for the first time.

All of the contributors to the issue are aware of the staggering implications for man and society of a fool-proof predictive psychology. Imagine for a moment that psychophysiologists are ultimately as successful in fact as they are in their wildest dreams--that they are able to understand memory and behavior on the molecular level. This would mean that social relations could be reduced to an intricate but thoroughly comprehensive set of stimuli and responses. If, for example, Lyndon Johnson's neural chemistry was understood in detail, and if all his sources of influence and advice were monitored, it might have been possible to predict with fair accuracy that he would send Marines to Santo Domingo in response to the civil disorder there last month. Furthermore, if the same detailed knowledge were available about the other three billion of us--and if it were possible to correlate all of this in some monster-computer--mankind would be in possession of a genuine time machine. It would be possible to foretell social as well as personal futures, and the uncertainties of existence would be eliminated along with all the non-psychological social sciences.

Needless to say, none of the contributors of the Review indulges himself in such irresponsible speculation. Though determinism of this sort is no more than a wild dream, I can find nothing in the magazine that rules it out as a logical possibility. And it is this deterministic spectre which makes the subject so fascinating and also so appropriate for a journal of "contemporary affairs."

Strictly speaking, only four of the eight articles deal with technical matters, and only two of these require any sort of scientific background on the part of the reader. The other two, "Memories, Molecules, and Minds," by James V. McConncll, professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and "Machines That Can Think," by Stephen F. Jencks '62, a second-year student at the Medical School and an undergraduate specialist in computer programming and information theory, are sufficient to suggest the advances looming on the horizon in their respective fields.

McConnell's piece summarizes some experiments with tiny primitive creatures called planarians, or flatworms, that he has published in his own journal, The Worm Runner's Guide, and elsewhere. His work, which has been confirmed by only some of the researchers who have tried to duplicate his expermiments, suggests that memory storage is in some way related to RNA, the gigantic molecule which is also involved in cell reproduction. He exploited the remarkable regenerative powers of the planarian to demonstrate that both halves of a bisected worm will contract in the presence of light if the worm has been so conditioned before the operation is performed. In his words, "The mystery was--and still is--how the tails could remember anything. When the flatworm was cut in half, the head portion retained the brain and the bulk of the nervous system... Yet many of the tails showed almost perfect retention of the original training!" In an even more bizarre experiment, conditioned worms were chopped-up and fed to untrained cannibal worms, who subsequently responded to the light stimulus to an impressive degree. McConnell concludes that memory must be stored within rather than between cells, and that it must be chemical in nature.

Jencks seeks to refute those who reflexively debunk the ability of computers to do more than chemical data processing. "Electronic intelligence," he says, "is still mostly promise rather than performance, but it has already begun to reflect something of the workings of the mind." He looks forward to a generation of computers that will be able to understand the written word, locate consistencies, and follow inferences. Like McConnell's tentative conclusions, Jencks' predictions strongly suggest that a vitalistic view of the operations of the mind soon may no longer be tenable. If the functioning of the mind can be understood in substantial detail, and if, in fact, man is able to construct a kind of para-mind, then endeavours such as sociology and history may find their usefulness greatly decreased.

It is to such important problems as these that the other four articles are addressed. In "The Death of Dualism," Alfred L. Goldberg '63 reminds us that "The admission that mind is a biological phenomenon arising from the operation of the brain and explainable in physical terms hurts our species and personal pride. Yet self-indulgent notions of mind have already suffered many setbacks." He sees no obstacles to a completely mechanistic understanding of thought and action and feels that a descriptive behavioral approach is only useful as long as the response of the organism at the neurological level is not understood. On this question he fundamentally disagrees with Jocl E. Cohen '64-4 and Richard H. Schuster who wrote, respectively, "Love in a Test Tube"--an inexcusably irrelevant title--and "Psychophysiology and the Science of Behavior."

Cohen "argues for the legitimacy of many avenues to the understanding of mind and behavior." Gross analysis is useful, he believes, because "Only at the social level, most likely, can the many isolated models of diverse social phenomena be related and integrated into coherent social theory." Schuster agrees, but only because he cannot imagine any systematic way to monitor the environmental inputs which induce neurophysiological response. "If we know physiology," he says, "but do not know specific inputs, we know how a subject learns a response in general; with behavioral science we can-know how the organism has acquired each and every specific response." The disagreement, then, is not about the world of the future, but merely about the place of descriptive social science in that world.

Weil and his colleagues are to be congratulated for a sophisticated and balanced treatment of a subject which to their knowledge and mine has never before been recognized as a discreet "field." There is indeed a New Psychology in the offing--a psychology which can only glorify rather than diminish the stature of man's mind. Those who are concerned to preserve the sentiment of Wonder have no cause for concern, for there is as much to wonder at in the marvelous mental mechanisms that are only now becoming clear as in all the works of art and literature that human reason and emotion have produced.