Hebbian Theory Explained


When someone learns something new, the neurons within the brain begin to adapt to the processes that are required. This is a basic mechanism of synaptic plasticity, which is described through the Hebbian theory.

How neurons operate and link together creates a trend that begins the skill-building process within the brain. When they fire, then they tend to be wired together in some way. Through the Hebbian theory, that wiring is described as a process of causality. Many neurons will fire simultaneously during the learning process.

These connections form to become engrams. Those engrams become patterns of learning. Those patterns will then eventually turn into practical knowledge that can be used for multiple purposes.

Mirror Neurons and the Hebbian Theory

The learning process that is described through Hebbian theory and the synaptic plasticity involved is also the foundation of how mirror neurons are able to form within the engrams that are eventually created by the patterns of firing. A mirror neuron fires when an action must be performed or when an individual hears or sees a similar action being taken that is similar.

These neurons show how the “learning by osmosis” skill, or watching and then doing, can develop within living beings. The neurons activate by seeing the skill being performed, then activate once again when the skills are being observed. This process reinforces the building patterns of the engrams, establishing information additions in various conditions.

It is possible for all 5 traditional senses to create their own engrams that interlock with each other, creating mirror neurons that fire in different ways, based on the perspective of the individual sense. Watching someone perform a skill would be different from hearing someone perform a skill, for example.

And when individuals perform the skill on their own, the sense of touch reflects the movements being performed and continues to build neuron “neighborhoods” that help the information be retained for future reference.

Does a Skill Need to Be Present for Neurons to Fire?

Giudice, Manera, and Keysers studied the concept of mirror neurons and Hebbian theory in 2009 to determine if neurons would activate when a skill was unknown to an individual. Their research involved playing the piano.

First, the researchers had individuals who had no knowledge of playing the piano observe someone playing music on the instrument. During this observational period, the neurons associated with playing the piano did not fire in those people.

After giving the same group 5 hours of piano lessons, the researchers discovered that neuron patterns developed that were directly associated with the sights, sounds, and sensations being observed by someone playing the piano. Instead of just listening to the music as they were before, the group of people involved in the study were able to experience the music through their knowledge of it.

That shows Hebbian theory requires some level of basic understanding before mirror neurons develop or the synaptic plasticity can create additional learning opportunities. It is a reasonable explanation for the reason why people without a specific skill feel lost when asked to complete a task, but feel confident when they have the required skills to get the job done.

Concerns About the Hebbian Theory

The primary concern with the Hebbian theory is that it is oversimplified. There are several instances in synaptic function where some activated neurons can actually activate neighboring neurons even though the learning process is intended to create individualized firing patterns only.

The neighboring neurons firing is a result of retrograde signaling, which for some has created a modification of the Hebbian theory at the base level. Nitric oxide often exerts an influence on neighboring neurons and is a process that tends to be initiated when volume learning occurs.

What We Can Learn from Hebbian Theory

Through the principles of Hebbian theory, we can observe the distinctive features of higher learning that is not associated with other forms of life. It also means that we can better understand how people learn because there is some level of skill required to create eventual neuron engrams that support information retention.

Simply exposing people to new information may not be enough to develop knowledge. If someone doesn’t know anything about architecture, sitting through a lecture about advanced architectural theory won’t build skills. They will need to practice working with blueprints before they could be successful with this skill set.

Once that skill is present, then associative learning can take place. Over time, knowledge turns into wisdom and that allows each person to pass along their skills to future generations.