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Donald O. Hebb

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.

Donald Olding 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; he had given up this desire by the time he received his bachelor's degree from Dalhousie University in 1925. He spent the next few years pursuing several occupations including teaching and farming. He finally decided to enter a master's program at McGill University, focusing on psychology. He graduated in 1932 and went to the University of Chicago to study under Professor Karl S. Lashley. When Lashley relocated to Harvard, Hebb followed. He 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 played 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 functioned. 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 resulted in diminished ability to solve problems and to concentrate. Some subjects even reported hallucinations. In practical application, Hebb's research explained in part why airline pilots and long-distance truck drivers sometimes hallucinated.

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. Hebb was a long-time member of both the Canadian and the American Psychological Assocations. 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. Hebb died in Nova Scotia in 1985.

Further Reading

McGraw-Hill modern scientists and engineers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.

Restak, Richard M. The mind. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists