Donald O. Hebb

A Canadian psychologist who studied the effects of brain development on intelligence.

The difference between the way a young brain and an older brain processes information was the focus of Donald Hebb's research during a career that spanned nearly half a century. Hebb was fascinated by the way people learned and the way they retained information. His research opened many doors in the field of behavioral science and made him one of the most influential behaviorists in twentieth-century psychology.

Hebb was born in Cheser, Nova Scotia, on July 22, 1904. Both his parents were physicians, but science was not Hebb's initial interest. As a youth, he wanted to become a novelist. Hebb was homeschooled until the age of eight, and at age ten was promoted to grade seven due to his academic performance. Although extremely bright, Hebb did not concentrate on academic achievement and failed eleventh grade. In the end, Hebb did graduate and enrolled in Dalhousie University where he received his bachelor's degree in 1925. By that time, Hebb had given up his desire to become a novelist.

After completing his bachelor's degree, Hebb spent a few years pursuing several occupations, including teaching and farming. He finally decided to enter a master's program at McGill University, focusing on psychology. At McGill, Hebb was trained in Pavlovian conditioning. Although Hebb spent much of his time in bed due to illness during the writing of his master's thesis, he successfully completed his degree, graduating in 1932. Next, Hebb went to the University of Chicago to study under Professor Karl S. Lashley (1890–1958), a famous behaviorist. When Lashley relocated to Harvard, Hebb followed. At Harvard, Hebb began to work on a thesis that would lead him to develop a new branch of psychology based on Lashley's experiments with rats being raised in the dark. Hebb successfully completed his thesis and received his doctorate in 1936.

In 1937, Hebb was appointed a research fellow at the Montreal Neurological Institute where he became involved in studies of the brain. His particular interest was, in simplest terms, the concept of nature versus nurture. Hebb wanted to find out how much of a role the brain plays in behavior. Research had shown that adults could often function quite well even after a significant part of the brain had been damaged; similar damage in infants, however, produced retardation. Hebb reasoned that, for adults, external stimulation might play a more prominent role in how the brain functions.

Over the next several years, first at Montreal then at Queen's University and then at the Yerkes Primate Labs, Hebb conducted experiments on animals and humans. His research showed that lack of external stimulation results in diminished ability to solve problems and to concentrate. Some subjects even reported hallucinations. In practical application, Hebb's research explains in part why airline pilots and long-distance truck drivers sometimes hallucinate.

In 1947, Hebb became professor of psychology at McGill, where he remained until he retired in 1972. He became an emeritus professor four years later. During his time at McGill, Hebb wrote his renowned book, The Organization of Behavior. The theory of neural networking Hebb wrote about made a significant contribution to psychology and later played a role in areas such as computer science and engineering.

One of Hebb's most well-known experiments took place during his time at McGill. In 1951, with a grant from the Canadian Defense Research Board, Hebb expanded on the research done by him and Lashley at Harvard. Hebb paid graduate students to stay in small rooms for a period, depriving them from sensory information through the use of frosted-over goggles, earphones, gloves, and cardboard tubes over their arms. At the same time, white noise was played from speakers to block out all sound. Hebb believed that the subject's brain would begin to deteriorate due to the lack of sensory input. Although Hebb had planned for subjects to live in the sensory deprivation rooms for six weeks, almost all subjects did not last more than a few days, and none lasted longer than one week. After being in isolation, the subjects were not able to clearly think about any one topic for a period, and their mental capabilities were temporarily impaired. Additionally, the subjects began to experience hallucinations, performed poorly when given simple tasks, and became extremely restless. Although Hebb's experiment was short lived, it did give insight into the possible consequences of sensory deprivation techniques that many feared the Soviets were using during the 1950s. For this reason, the Canadian government forbade Hebb from publishing parts of his results.

Hebb was a long-time member of both the Canadian and the American Psychological Association. He was the first non-U.S. citizen to serve as APA president (1960). He won the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1961. The Donald O. Hebb Award, of which he was the first recipient in 1980, honors Canadians who have made a lasting contribution to the sciences. He wrote numerous books and published more than 50 scholarly articles. Hebb died in Nova Scotia on August 20, 1985, at the age of 81. He was survived by two daughters.

See also Cognitive development ; Nature-nurture controversy .



Hebb, Donald Olding. Essay on Mind. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1980.

Hebb, Donald Olding. The Organization of Behavior; A Neuropsychological Theory. New York: Wiley, 1949.

Hebb, Donald Olding. Textbook of Psychology., 4th ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1994.


Brown, Richard E., and Peter M. Milner. “The Legacy of Donald O. Hebb: More than the Hebb Synapse.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 4 (2003): 1013–19.

Koch, Giacomo, et al. “Hebbian and Anti-Hebbian SpikeTiming-Dependent Plasticity of Human CorticoCortical Connections.” Journal of Neuroscience 33, no. 23 (2013): 9725–33.

Kuriscak, Eduard, et al. “Biological Context of Hebb Learning in Artificial Neural Networks, a Review.” Neurocomputing 152, no. 25 (2015): 27–35.


Bond, Michael. “How Extreme Isolation Wraps the Mind.” (accessed August 16, 2015).

Chudasama, Yogit, and Peter M. Milner. “Donald Olding Hebb, 1904–1985.” (accessed August 16, 2015).

New York Times. “Decades Later, Theories Still Hold.” (accessed August 16, 2015).