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Summary Article: Hebb, Donald O. (1904–1985)
from Encyclopedia of Human Memory

Donald O. Hebb was a Canadian neuropsychologist influential for his ideas regarding how memories are created. Hebb was born in Chester, Canada, on July 22, 1904. He received a bachelor of arts degree from Dalhousie University in 1925 and then started his graduate studies at McGill University. There he conducted research with a former student of Pavlov's but then transferred to the University of Chicago to work with Karl Lashley, who is best known for his work to uncover the engram, the underlying neural trace left by a memory. While at the University of Chicago, Hebb researched spatial maps but then moved to Harvard University when Lashley moved his lab there. Hebb earned his doctoral degree from Harvard in 1936 based on his research there examining the effects of visual deprivation and brain lesions on brightness perception in rats, comparing the brains of rats raised in the dark with those raised in the light. After earning his doctoral degree, Hebb worked with Wilder Penfield, a prominent neurosurgeon at the Montreal Neurological Institute, to examine the effects of brain surgery and brain injury on behavior. Penfield is best known for his work in mapping various functions of the brain based on probing brain areas in awake humans prior to brain surgery. Hebb then furthered his training by studying emotions in chimpanzees with Lashley, who in 1942 was at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Orange Park, Florida. Hebb eventually became a faculty member of the Psychology Department at McGill University in 1947, where he remained until his retirement in 1972. Thus, Hebb had a wide range of early academic experiences in many areas related to the physiological mechanisms that result in memory and memory formation. Among his accomplishments during his career was becoming president of the American Psychological Association in 1960. Hebb was the first non-U.S. citizen to hold this position. In 1980, he was honored as professor emeritus of psychology at Dalhousie University. Donald Hebb died in Nova Scotia on August 20, 1985, at the age of 81.

His ideas about memory were put forth in a book titled The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory in 1949. Hebb thought that the creation of a memory requires two stages. In the first stage, a group of neurons is activated by an experience. In the second stage, physical connections between these active neurons become stronger. This change in the neurons’ physical structure helps make the experience resistant to forgetting. One way to remember Hebb's theory is: “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” a saying first coined by neuroscientist Carla Schatz.

Although Hebb conducted research on a variety of psychological and neuroscientific topics, he is most well known for his ideas regarding the mind-body problem. He connected the biological function of the brain to the human interpretation of these workings. This is most clearly seen in his work on sensation and perception. His work defied the strong behaviorist ideas and spirit of his time. Although behaviorism could connect stimuli to responses, Hebb's focus was on connecting external stimuli to the internal psychological reality of the mind.

His hypothesis about groups of interacting neurons that he called cell assemblies and how these cell assemblies support the formation of new memories is among the most cited of all works in psychology. In his book The Organization of Behavior, Hebb states, “When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some sort of growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A's efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased” (Hebb, 1949, p. 62). Much of Hebb's work presaged currently held beliefs about cognitive functioning in terms of neural network models. His hypotheses were simply not testable in his time. However, recent advances in technology have allowed for many of his hypotheses about changes within cells as a consequence of experience (i.e., “memory”) to be tested and supported.

As an educator, Hebb was ahead of his time. He believed that student success came from an inner motivation and from creative work in any field, which could not be taught in a classroom but which could be encouraged and developed. Despite working with young adults most of his life, in his later years, he focused on preschool and early education programs.

Further Reading
  • Brown, R. E.; Milner, P. M. (2003). The legacy of Donald O. Hebb: More than the Hebb synapse. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4, 1013-1019.
  • Harnad, S. (1985). D. O. Hebb: Father of cognitive psychobiology, 1904-1985. Retrieved March 17, 2013, from
  • Selected Works
  • Hebb, D. O. (2002). The organization of behavior: A neuropsychological theory. Lawrence Erlbaum Mahwah NJ. (Original work published 1949).
  • Hebb, D. O. (1974). What psychology is about. American Psychologist, 29 (2), 71-79.
  • Hebb, D. O. (1960). The American revolution. American Psychologist, 15 (12), 735-745.
  • Hebb, D. O. (1951). The role of neurological ideas in psychology. Journal of Personality, 20(1), 39-55. doi: 10.1111/1467-6494.ep8930228.
  • Galván, Veronica
    Copyright 2013 by Annette Kujawski Taylor

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