The Organization of Behavior in retrospect

Peter M. MILNER
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada


I first read parts of the manuscript of The Organization of Behavior in 1947 and although I was not a psychologist I found it fascinating. So much so, in fact that I came to McGill and studied with Hebb for my PhD in psychology.

The book has three parts. The early chapters review the scene in theoretical psychology during the 1940s. They include kind but uncompromising obituaries of the behaviourist and gestalt schools of psychology, which were flourishing at the time (and did not appear particularly sick). They also include Hebb’s rationale for favouring a cognitive neural theory that would incorporate the mental concepts rejected by other materialist theories. This brought constructs like attention and ideas back into psychology, but without the vitalist overtones. This is a very forward looking part of the book and had a great influence on the course of psychological and neuroscientific thought during the next half century.

The second part of the book was Hebb’s attempt to demonstrate how ideas might be represented in the nervous system. Using the neurophysiology and neuroanatomy of the day, he postulated a model in which sensory input organizes the connections in an initially randomly connected group of neurons. The new connections form complex loops he called “cell assemblies”, whose activity represents the generating stimuli. Impulses circulate around the loops for a time after a stimulus has been presented, corresponding to an idea. Cell assemblies that are active at about the same time acquire connections with each other so that when one is fired, others may follow suit, explaining trains of thought. Much of the neural information on which this model was based has been revised during the last half-century, and this part of the book has suffered in consequence. It served its purpose when it was written, but is now of diminished theoretical value.

I shall not say very much about the third part of the book, which is wide ranging review of psychological problems and phenomena to which Hebb applies his theory with a rather wide brush. The freedom to talk about ideas, motivations and emotions without being accused of vitalism was probably intoxicating to a generation that had been restricted to studying only observable behaviour.


Session V -- Donald O. Hebb Seminar
Sunday, 27 June 2004, 2:30 - 5:00 pm

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada