The Brain and Behavior: Donald O. Hebb

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
Donald o. Hebb was the first to associate the brain with behavior

Of all prominent psychologists to leave an indelible mark in the history of psychology, not many can claim to have contributed more to psychological knowledge than Donald O. Hebb has. Hebb is credited with the renewed interest in the relationship between behavior and the brain in the mid 1900’s (Goodwin, 2008). His efforts kept both physiology and psychology alive in their own right. In addition, he successfully illustrated the distinct association between the two, and how the chemical and mechanistic processes of the brain show them to be complimentary processes rather than anything of a rival nature. Many scientists have attempted to explain various behaviors using associationism, but probably none have accomplished as much and seen it advance through to the modern day, as Donald O. Hebb.

Cortical Organization

Donald O. Hebb theorized that cell assemblies (Goodwin, p. 488) which became associated with other cell assemblies formed a type of organization. That is, when one group of neurons fired, and influenced a nearby group of neurons to fire, the association between then became such that future firings became reliant upon each other. For example, if the aroma of a rose triggered a pleasant sensory event, neurons firing in a particular region also caused other cell assemblies to fire simultaneously. The perception of the sensory event, pleasure, was derived from the scent of a rose. This perception then, a response from the brain, causes the physiological aspect to occur. In this case it might be a smile, or depending on the individual, a sneeze!

Phase sequences are higher levels of organization involving the incorporation of several cell assemblies, and for Hebb, they were the physiological equivalent of thinking. Taken together, cell assemblies and phase sequences accounted for the fact that stimuli do not simply produce responses, but are mediated by the brain

(Goodwin, 2008).


Unfortunately for Hebb, there has been much literature published over the years implicating his research on the brain and mental health, with covert operations involving the CIA. Luckily, for Hebb, most of this literature can be discounted as false, according to an article by Brown, (2007). The article, which credits, or in this case, discredits Hebb’s work, implicates him by referring to his research between 1951 and 1955. However, it was the work of another, Ewen Cameron, whose research at the Allan Memorial Hospital in Montreal between 1953 and 1961, was funded solely by the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology, “which was later discovered to be a CIA front” (Brown, 2007).

Donald O. Hebb’s research on the “biological basis of behavior” (Brown, 2003) is a much more positive legacy, and has carried through in the field of neuroscience to the present day. His research on brain development and the effects of the environment on behavior are just two of many areas of study that Hebb worked passionately on during the course of his career. His open-minded approach to the marriage of physiology and psychology was rewarded with success. “In addition, studies of the neural bases of emotion, motivation, reward and pain derive from Hebb’s ideas and the research of his students” (Brown, 2003, p. 6).


Brown, R. E. (2007). Alfred McCoy, Hebb, the CIA and Torture. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 43(2), 205-213. doi:10.1002/jhbs.20225

Brown, R., Milner, P. (2003). The legacy of Donald O. Hebb: more than the Hebb synapse. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 4(12), 1013-1019. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken,

NJ: Wiley.


1 comment

carol roach
Posted on Dec 11, 2011