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Hebbian Theory and A Side of Fries

Donald Hebb

Donald Hebb


Once upon a time, I read about Hebbian Theory and thought it made a lot of sense.

Then I saw this explanation for Hebbian Theory…

Hebbian learning

…and I thought it was hilarious.

Hebbian Law is quite simple, almost laughable in it’s brillance, if you are someone who has ever ordered a cheeseburger and a side of fries.

The fries are almost a given, right?  A cheeseburger and fries, peas and carrots, smoke and fire…. associations so strong they are nearly inextricably connected.  But what does Donald Hebb’s magnificent mathematical equation have to do with Alzheimer’s disease?

Hebb’s Theory has morphed into a commonly known expression, “Fire Together, Wire Together”.

Let’s say that in the brain, two cells that talk a lot get really good at talking to each other.  In fact, like two best friends, they can almost read each other’s “minds”.  Cell A sends a signal to Cell B so frequently that there are actually metabolic changes within each cell that help to strengthen that relationship.  A whole network of cells can do this- wire together- and create strong and efficient neural pathways.  These neural pathways are like heavily traveled highways, well worn and preferable to smaller side roads and detours.

It is important to build lots of highways throughout your life.  It is important to lay down some heavy tracks on the less traveled dirt roads.  That’s why you hear the experts telling you to learn a new language or learn how to play an instrument.  They tell you to do crossword puzzles and sudoku daily.  They recommend building strong alternate pathways so that unfamiliar things become familiar and learning something in the future will be facilitated by having experienced something similar in the past.  The thing with Alzheimer’s disease is- you’ll never know which roads will be disrupted, so better to have lots of options.

Even well into the disease process, it is not too late to build neural connections and wire together some new movement patterns or behaviors.  The key to achieving this, promoting neuroplasticity, is repetition.  Repetition.  Did I say repetition?

In the Alzheimer’s-Rehab world, we have to rely on this motor learning/Hebbian approach to teach people to use a walker for the first time, or to learn where the bathroom in a new environment.  I find that men who have had strong mechanical skills and experience in operating machinery or vehicles learn how to operate a power wheelchair or use a rollator more easily than others.  The concept of braking, steering, and accelerating is easily generalized between familiar, non-specific tasks.  I see women who may struggle with the operation of the tv remote and microwave,  but can follow an unfamiliar written recipe and anticipate the next step better than men who have never cooked.  Our brain relies on those superhighways to learn a new task based on lots of practiced similarities.  If you are trying to teach someone with Alzheimer’s disease a new skill, delve into their past a little bit and see what they were good at.  When you introduce the new skill, experience, environment… tap into something familiar and similar to something they once knew very well.  Or if you have to start from scratch with a concept that is completely unfamiliar to them, commit to providing opportunities for repetition and practice for several months before giving up.

Cells that just start “dating” need time to get to know each other.  Be patient and let the relationship evolve.  Once they fire together, they will wire together- even in the presence of Alzheimer’s disease.



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  1. Thanks for a wonderful website, I came upon in accidentally looking for bits of information on The Hebbian Theory. I enjoyed it so much and kept thinking, wow, this woman thinks just like an O.T. Then I saw your bio 🙂 Great site, great idea!
    From a fellow practitioner (COTa).

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