Skip to main content

Hebb, Donald O.

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.

See also Cognitive development; Nature-nuture controversy

George A. Milite

Further Reading

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

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

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hebb, Donald O.." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . 17 Jan. 2019 <>.

"Hebb, Donald O.." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . (January 17, 2019).

"Hebb, Donald O.." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.