Donald O. Hebb

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Donald Olding Hebb (born July 22, 1904 in Chester , Nova Scotia , Canada ; † August 20, 1985 ibid) was a Canadian cognitive psychobiologist and professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal , Canada.


Hebb was the eldest of four children of Arthur M. and M. Clara Olding Hebb. He spent his childhood and youth in Chester until 1929 before moving to Dartmouth with his family . Up to the age of eight he received his schooling from his mother, who - like his father - was a doctor and was guided by the ideas of Maria Montessori in bringing up her son . Because of his great learning progress in elementary school, he was already in 7th grade when he was ten. After repeating 11th grade, Hebb graduated from Halifax County Academy in Halifax .

To become a writer, he enrolled at Dalhousie University . After graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1925, he returned to his hometown of Chester, where he taught as a teacher at his old school. He later became a farmer in Alberta and began traveling. During these trips he first came into contact with the works of Sigmund Freud , William James and John B. Watson . Because of this he decided at the age of 23 to deal with psychology. Hebb approached McGill University's head of the Psychology Department , William Dunlop Tait , for admission to the degree. The latter gave him a list of books and articles and asked him to inquire again the following year. In 1928, Hebb was accepted as a part-time student at McGill University. At the same time, he was appointed headmaster of a Montreal school that was in a difficult situation. Together with colleagues from the university, he managed to improve the situation there by introducing new teaching and learning methods.

In 1931 Hebb fell ill with tuberculosis . He used the time in bed to read Charles Scott Sherrington's The Integrative Action of the Nervous System and Ivan Pavlov's Conditioned Reflexes . In the same year he wrote his thesis entitled Conditioned and Unconditioned Reflexes and Inhibition . With this work he laid the foundation for the Hebbian learning rule he developed . After that, at the suggestion of Boris P. Babkin, he worked with Leonid Andreyev .

In 1933 and 1934, Hebb wrote a pamphlet called Scientific Method in Psychology: A Theory of Epistemology Based on Objective Psychology. Although this work was never published, it contained many of Hebb's founding ideas that he would implement in his later research.

Finally, he offered Robert Yerkes at the Yale University a PhD position at, at the urging Babbkins to Hebb, however, decided at Karl Lashley to a doctorate . He began this project in July 1934 at the University of Chicago . The title of his doctoral thesis was " The problem of spatial orientation and place learning ". Together with his doctoral supervisor, Hebb moved to Harvard University in September 1935 . There he researched the effects of premature blindness on the perception of size and brightness in rats. In 1936 Harvard University awarded him his doctorate for this research.

In 1939 Hebb accepted a position at Queen's University in Kingston . In 1942 he moved to Orange Park , Florida to work again with Karl Lashley. He then returned to McGill University and was appointed professor of psychology in 1947. From 1948 he also headed the Faculty of Psychology. His students included Mortimer Mishkin , Haldor Enger Rosvold , and Brenda Milner . Hebb stayed at McGill University until his retirement in 1972. After his retirement he continued to hold courses and seminars and in 1980 he moved to Dalhousie University . He was a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and its president in 1960.

In 1933 his first wife died of the consequences of an accident. In 1937 Hebb married Elizabeth Nichols Donovan. After the death of his wife Elizabeth in 1962, Hebb married the widow Margaret Doreen Wright a third time in 1966. He died in his hometown of Chester in 1985.


From 1937 Hebb worked as an assistant to Lashley and Edwin G. Boring , gave lectures in psychology at Radcliffe College and completed the research he had begun at the University of Chicago. In 1937 he accepted a position with Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute . There he researched the effects of operations and injuries to the human brain on its functions. He discovered that brain injuries were far less effective in children than in adults.

As a result of his research, he began to doubt the applicability of the Stanford-Binet test and the Wechsler test in patients with brain injuries. Then, together with NW Morton, he developed the Adult Comprehension Test and the Picture Anomaly Test . On the basis of these tests, he was able to prove that the recognition of objects can be assigned to the right temporal lobe . Hebb also demonstrated that removing large parts of the frontal lobe has no effect on human intelligence. This led him to realize that the frontal lobes only play a role in learning at a young age.

To confirm his theory about the role of the frontal lobes in learning, he worked with Kenneth Williams to develop a special labyrinth for rats, known as the Hebb-Williams Labyrinth .

Karl Lashley was meanwhile director of the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center . During his work there, Hebb developed a test for chimpanzees , but it did not show the desired research results.

Hebb's law in neurology is "Neurons that fire together wire together." Nerve cells form networks via synapses and strengthen each other. This neural plasticity strengthens learning processes and memory performance. For musicians z. For example, certain areas of the brain are more “connected” than in non-musicians. Neuronal plasticity also plays an important role in brain injuries in order to compensate for defects. In pedagogy, Hebb considered an enriched environment that enables motor and sensory experiences to be a way to form more nerve cells into the necessary networks.

Hebb is also considered the founder of deprivation research .


Hebb was particularly devoted to teaching throughout his life. Both as a teacher and principal at a school in Montreal and during his time at McGill University, he was extremely efficient and had a great influence on his students. As a professor, he was convinced that motivation could not be taught. Rather, he saw it as his duty to create the best possible conditions for students to study and research. Under his leadership, McGill University's Faculty of Psychology developed into one of the leading research institutions in the country.

Military research, sensory deprivation torture

Hebb's name was involved in psychological research to develop special brainwashing interrogation methods. At a symposium at Harvard University, he himself describes it this way:

"The work we did at McGill University dealt with the problem of brainwashing at the beginning. Of course, we weren't allowed to call it that in the first publications. The main reason for this was the" confessions "obtained in court proceedings against Russian communists. The term "brainwashing" later appeared in connection with Chinese methods. We didn't know what the Russian methods were. In any case, they led to noticeable behavioral changes. How these were achieved? Well, one possibility was to limit the respondents' ability to perceive. And this is exactly what we focused on in our research.


Fonts (selection)

  • The Organization of Behavior - A Neuropsychological Theory (1949) is his best-known work and deals with neurobiological principles of learning in neural networks in which he wrote Hebb's learning rule , named after him , which describes learning in neural networks or in a group of neurons describes that have common synapses.
  • Introduction to modern psychology new (translated from the 3rd, completely revised edition) by Hermann Rademacker; 8., completely redesigned. Ed .; Weinheim, Basel: Beltz 1975. 3-407-28033-5
  • Essay on Mind , Psychology Press, Hove 1980

See also


  • Paul Adams: Hebb and Darwin . In: Journal of Theoretical Biology , Vol. 195 (1998), pp. 419-438, ISSN  0022-5193 .
  • Richard E. Brown, Peter M. Milner: The legacy of Donald O. Hebb. More than the Hebb Synapse . In: Nature Reviews Neuroscience , Vol. 4 (2003), pp. 1013-1019, ISSN  1471-003X .
  • Stephen E. Glickman: Donald Olding Hebb. Returning the nervous system to psychology . In Gregory A. Kimble, C. Alan Boneau, Michael Wertheimer (Eds.): Portraits of pioneers in psychology, Vol. 2 . Erlbaum Press, Hillsdale, NJ 1996, ISBN 1-55798-344-5 .
  • Raymond M. Klein: DO Hebb. An appreciation . In Peter W. Jusczyk, Raymond M. Klein (Eds.): The Nature of Thought. Essays in Honor of DO Hebb . Erlbaum Press, Hillsdale, NJ 1980, ISBN 0-89859-034-5 , pp. 1-18.
  • Peter M. Milner: The mind and Donald O. Hebb . In: Scientific American , 268 : 124-129 (1986).
  • H. Sebastian Seung: Half a century of Hebb . In: Nature Neuroscience , Vol. 3 (2000), p. 1166, ISSN  1097-6256 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Short biography of Hebbs on the University of Alberta homepage p. 1
  2. ^ Hebbs short biography on the University of Alberta homepage, p. 3
  3. ^ Philip Solomon, Philip E. Kubzansky, P. Herbert Leiderman, Jack H. Mendelson, Richard Trumbull, Donald Wexler (Eds.): Sensory Deprivation. A Symposium Held at Harvard Medical School on June 20 and 21, 1958 . New edition Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA 1971, ISBN 0-674-80115-6 .