Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

School for Slugs

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

School for Slugs

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Learning Degree Zero" by D. Graham Burnett, in Cabinet, Fall 2010.

WHEN NEUROSCIENTIST ERIC Kandel gave his acceptance speech after winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000, he puckishly flashed a Photoshopped picture of a giant undersea slug sporting a Nobel medal on the screen behind him.

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Aplysia californica is not just any old slug, but "the creature upon which much of the modern scientific understanding of learning has been built," writes D. Graham Burnett, a Princeton historian and an editor of Cabinet.

The first half of the 20th century saw halting progress in the quest to understand what exactly learning is. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus identified the 'learning curve," and Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov famously trained animals to respond to certain stimuli in what he called "classical conditioning." But when it came to describing how learning actually happens, scientists were stymied. Psychologist Karl Lashley joked in 1950, "I sometimes feel, in reviewing the evidence, ... that the necessary conclusion is that learning is just not possible."

The study of what are called "model organisms" has produced many core scientific discoveries. Where would genetics be without fruit flies? In the early 1960s, Kandel was looking for the model organism for the science of learning. Dogs and rats were too complicated, their behavior too intricate.

He "wanted to study learning in an animal built for the very simplest kinds of information acquisition and storage," Burnett says. "An animal that could be understood as a little laboratory learning-machine: limited behavioral repertoire; large, simple wiring; a resilient metabolism; and, ideally, small teeth (no one likes getting chomped by lab animals). …

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