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Hebbian Learning

by Tim Brunson, PhD

Strangely enough one of the most profound discoveries came not from a neuroscientist, but a Canadian psychologist. In 1949, Donald Hebb, PhD, was trying to explain how neurons reacted to an animal's experience. His focus was on learning and memory. He noted (Begley, 2007) that when a presynaptic neuron's firing changed, the postsynaptic neuron changed as well. This simultaneous response led to the phrase, "Cells that fire together, wire together." The significance of this came from the realization that patterns of synaptic firing followed perceptions and thoughts.

When the same input was received, the same firing patterns occurred. What Hebb's research detected was that the continued firing of the same networks of neurons resulted in their connections becoming stronger. Also, neural networks that were related to the input became denser. Conversely, networks that were not used (i.e. fired less frequently) tended to thin out and become dormant. While this observation, which became known as Hebbian Learning – and synonymous with the phrase "use it or lose it" – does not necessarily represent a reorganization of cortical functioning, it is symbolic in that it represents the brain's ability to physically change due to its environment or thought inputs. [Hebbian Learning is also a major concept used by computer programmers who seek to write artificial intelligence (AI) programs, which replicate biological neural networks. (Rao & Rao, 1995)]

The International Hypnosis Research Institute is a member supported project involving integrative health care specialists from around the world. We provide information and educational resources to clinicians. Dr. Brunson is the author of over 150 self-help and clinical CD's and MP3's.


Begley, S. (2007). Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Out Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves. New Your: Ballantine Books.

Rao, V. B. & Rao, H. V. (1995). C++ Neural Networks & Fuzzy Logic. (2nd ed.) New York: MIS:Press.

Posted: 04/21/2015

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