About D.O. Hebb

Donald Olding Hebb (1904-1985)

D.O. Hebb was probably the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. His great achievement was to persuade a generation of psychologists that in order to understand the behaviour of living organisms it made sense to study the neural machinery responsible for that behaviour. He argued against the position of the behaviourist establishment that observations of behaviour would provide all the necessary data. In his 1949 monograph, The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory, Hebb proposed that neural structures that he called ‘cell assemblies’ constituted the material basis of mental concepts. Hebb’s ideas were disseminated worldwide by his students who were in great demand to establish laboratories for studying the physiological bases of behaviour. These laboratories made many pioneering contributions to the new field of physiological psychology.

D.O. Hebb was born and raised in Chester, Nova Scotia and graduated from Dalhousie (B.A., 1925) and McGill (M.A., 1932). His interest in psychology stemmed from the writings of William James, Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, and Karl Lashley. He studied under Lashley at Chicago and Harvard, where he completed his Ph. D in 1936 on the effects of early deprivation upon size and brightness perception in the rat. Hebb then worked with Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute (1937-1939), where he explored the effects of surgical lesions of the temporal and frontal lobes on human intelligence and behaviour. After teaching at Queen's (1941-1942), Lashley invited Hebb to the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology as a research fellow (1942-1947). In 1947 he returned to McGill as Professor of psychology, serving as chairman of the department (1948-1959), Vice-Dean for biological sciences (1964-1966), and finally Chancellor of the University (1970-1974).

Hebb’s seminal idea continues to exert an influence on all those interested in mind and behaviour. He was a great down-to-earth scholar who even encouraged and inspired social psychologists. Besides his important monographs, The Organization of Behavior (1949) and Essay on Mind (1980), he wrote A Textbook of Psychology (1958) and more than 50 scholarly articles. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the Royal Society of London and was president of the Canadian and American Psychological Associations. He won the American Psychology Association Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution. Hebb was frequently involved in debates in psychology because it was a subject of general interest. This attracted the attention of the mass media and the general public.

Yogita Chudasama and Peter M. Milner
Department of Psychology, McGill University
September, 2008


Further Readings

Hebb, D. O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior: A neuropsychological theory. New York: Wiley

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.

Glickman, S., (1996). Donald Olding Hebb: Returning the nervous system to psychology. In G. Kimble, C. Boneau, and M. Wertheimer (Eds), Portraits of pioneers in psychology. Vol 2. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Milner, P. M., (1986) The Mind and Donald O. Hebb. Scientific American, 268: 124-129

Back to top