Donald Olding Hebb

by Sarah Ferguson

Donald Hebb
Donald Hebb

Donald Hebb (1904-1985) is often considered the “father of neuropsychology” because of the way he was able to merge the psychological world with the world of neuroscience. This achievement was accomplished largely through his work The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory which was published in 1949.


Donald Olding Hebb was born on July 22, 1904 in Chester, Nova Scotia where he lived until his family moved to Dartmouth when he was 16. He was homeschooled by his mother until he was eight years old. He was placed in the seventh grade at the young age of 10, but in high school, Hebb was not impressed with policy or authority and failed Grade 11 the first time. He was able to graduate from high school and went to Dalhousie University with the desire to become a writer, receiving his BA in 1925.
Hebb then became a teacher. He came to McGill in 1928 as a part-time graduate student in psychology while also working as headmaster at a Montreal school. He received his Master’s in 1932.

Departure from – and return to – Montreal

Two years later, Hebb was looking for a change of scenery due to both his frustrations with the limitations imposed by the Quebec curriculum on his job as headmaster and the direction of psychology research of the McGill department at the time – Hebb was more interested in the physiology of psychology. He was accepted to do a PhD with famous behaviourist Karl Lashley at the University of Chicago in 1934, following him to Harvard the following year and completed his thesis there in 1936. Working with Lashley provided Hebb with the opportunity to study learning and spatial orientation with an emphasis on the neurobiological aspect, which was where his interests lay. It was at Harvard that this interest in the development neural networks started to flourish.
He then returned to Montreal – armed with a PhD – to work with Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute in 1937. There, he researched the impact of surgeries and head injuries on brain functioning. He developed new tests for brain surgery patients to test their functioning post-operation – the Adult Comprehension Test and the Picture Anomaly Test – that measured specific functions as opposed to the typical overall intelligence tests that were being used.
In 1939 he again left Montreal, this time for eight years to first teach at Queen’s University and then to reunite with Lashley at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Hebb returned to McGill as a psychology professor in 1947 where he remained until 1974 – serving as Chancellor of the university from 1970-74.

The Organization of Behavior: Hebbian Theory

Hebb’s major contribution to the fields of both neuroscience and psychology was bringing the two together. Published in 1949, The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory is the book in which Hebb outlined his theory about how learning is accomplished within the brain. Perhaps the most well-known part of this work is what has become known as the Hebbian Theory or cell assembly theory.
The Hebbian theory aims to explain how neural pathways are developed based on experiences. As certain connections are used more frequently, they become stronger and faster. This hypothesis is perhaps best described by the following passage from The Organization of Behavior:

“When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some 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.”

So, cell A and cell B are located near each other. As cell A is repeatedly involved in the firing of cell B by exciting it, a change occurs in one of or both the cells. This change improves how effective cell A is at contributing to the firing of cell B. The two cells become associated with each other. This is often described as “cells that fire together, wire together.”
Hebbian theory provides a micro, physiological mechanism for the learning and memory processes. This theory has also been extended to computational machines that model biological processes and in artificial intelligence.

The Organization of Behavior: Bringing Two Groups Together

First and foremost, the purpose of The Organization of Behavior was to illustrate Hebb’s theory about behaviour. It also played a huge role in merging the fields of psychology and neuroscience. Hebb states this goal in the introduction to the book:

“Another [goal] is to seek a common ground with the anatomist, physiologist, and neurologist, to show them how psychological theory relates to their problems and at the same time to make it more possible for them to contribute to that theory.”

Hebb saw a need for psychology to work with neurology and physiology to be able to explain human behaviour in a more objective manner. In this way, the more abstract “mind” that psychology tended to focus on was merged with the physical, biological brain function. Hebb argued that this approach was necessary if psychology was going to be viewed as a scientific discipline.
The field of neuropsychology perseveres under the umbrella of both neuroscience and psychology, aiming to explore how behaviour correlates with brain function.

Awards and Honours

1966: elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society
1980: The Donald O. Hebb award was created and named in his honour. Hebb was the first recipient. It is awarded annually to member or fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association for their contribution to Canadian psychology as a science.
2003: Posthumously inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame

Other Resources

Hebb, Donald O. (1949), The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Hebb, D. O. (1959) A neuropsychological theory. In S. Koch (Ed), Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol 1. New York: McGraw-Hill

Hebb, D. O. (1980) Essay on Mind. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum