In his day, Krech was somewhat of a lone wolf
in his efforts to point out the social and ethical
consequences of discoveries of neuroscience.
inhibition and its acceleration — would affect the acquisition of
The early 1960s were ripe for such investigations. Hot on the
heels of Watson and Crick’s pioneering work on the structure
and function of DNA, researchers turned their attention to the
physiological and biochemical aspects of learning and memory. If
DNA “coded” for ancestral information, might RNA be a parallel
code for acquired information? Each year the National Institutes
of Health and the National Science Foundation awarded grants,
interdisciplinary conferences were held and researchers published
dozens of experimental reports. Newspaper headlines heralded
impending breakthroughs in the treatment of — perhaps even
cures for — dementia and various other cognitive disabilities.
A watershed event occurred in 1965 when Krech arranged
a multi-session symposium on “Brain, Biochemistry and
Behavior” at the American Association for the Advancement
of Science meeting. Approximately 2,000 attendees heard
prominent geneticists, anatomists, biochemists, physiologists,
pharmacologists, neurologists and psychologists who discussed
the tantalizing evidence on the role of RNA. Biochemist
Bernard Agranoff of the University of Michigan reported that
administering various RNA or protein-synthesis inhibitors
before or just after training had significant adverse effects on
the retention of newly acquired learning in goldfish. In other
experiments, James McGaugh and Lewis Petrinovich (both
former students of Krech) demonstrated that increasing RNA
synthesis by administering strychnine improved learning.
Psychiatrist Ewen Cameron of McGill University reported
that yeast RNA administered to elderly people suffering from
dementia had a positive effect on their memory. Researchers
at Abbott Labs reported that Cylert (magnesium pemoline)
enhanced learning in rats and, more important, that human
trials were planned.
In both his introductory remarks and closing commentary
at the symposium, Krech worried out loud. The potential
benefits of this research, he agreed, were enormous. But the
social and ethical questions raised by this work were of the
same magnitude as those resulting from the achievements of
the atomic physicists: If the biochemical tools are developed,
will governments be tempted to manipulate the behavior of
their citizens? Should scientists or governments tamper with
individuals’ natural endowments? Should such potions, once
developed, be used only to treat cognitive deficiencies or
should they be used to enhance normal functioning? Who gets
what and when? Who bears the cost of these treatments? Who
decides? Who keeps watch over those who do?
Krech’s comments quickly spread through the mass media.
On the last day of the symposium a New York Times headline
proclaimed “Mind Control on Way, Scientist Warns.” This
was followed the next day by a Times editorial, “Controlling
the Mind,” which lauded Krech’s position and called for “free
men in democratic societies to grapple with the problems of
advances in science and to find ways to control the results.”
This was not the first time Krech delved into the relationship
between the scientific and broader social worlds. A founding
member of Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social
Issues) in 1936, Krech fervently believed that psychology could
— and should — contribute to a better understanding of social
problems and that its results might improve the quality of
life for all. Social responsibility was a matter for everyone, he
believed; neither policymakers nor scientists should act alone.
Over the next several years, Krech relentlessly drew attention
to the latest research results and the ethical questions that in
his view demanded the attention of citizens, scientists and
politicians alike. His article, “Controlling the Mind Controllers,”
published shortly after the AAAS symposium, set the stage. He
appeared as a panelist on the television special “Frontiers of
the Mind” and on the radio broadcast “Mastering the Mind.”
He debated the issues with Nobel laureate biologists Joshua
Lederberg and Sir Peter Medawar. He brought the issues
to the attention of educators at talks sponsored by the U.S.
Office of Education and the Charles Kettering Foundation.
And he took his message to Washington when, in April 1968,
he appeared before Walter Mondale’s Senate subcommittee
conducting hearings to consider the creation of a Commission
on Health Science and Society. There, Krech insisted that a
hasty patchwork policy would not do. Neither the scientist
nor the politician should be the final arbiter — an informed
collaborative effort was needed.
Although Mondale’s proposed commission failed to
garner the necessary votes, Krech soldiered on. His last major
talk before he died, an invited address at APA’s 84th Annual
Convention in 1976, was titled “Prospects for Control.”
Today, the issues Krech raised are still very much alive.
Indeed, they are more pronounced. Over the past four decades,
research on various agents to improve cognitive performance has
broadened and accelerated. Given the focus on attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder, “attention” has now joined “memory” as