Hebbian Learning – The Value of Repetition

The complete neural network tutorial

By Tim Brunson

You have always heard that “practice makes perfect.” Have you wondered why? It might just be related to the synaptic plasticity of the brain. How many times does a thought need to be repeated before it becomes sufficient hard wired into the brain?

In 1949, Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb postulated a theory in which he said that “the persistence or repetition of a reverberatory activity tends to induce lasting cellular changes that add to its stability.” Another way of saying this is “cells that fire together, wire together.” Hebbian Learning is a theory that explains that some types of associative learning in which simultaneous activation of cells leads to increases in synaptic strength. Indeed, this may explain why repeated thought or practice strengthens the hardwiring of neurons in the association areas of the various lobes of the brain.

Biologically this means that a dominant thought created through our will power will stimulate new synaptic connections in our brain. Once these connections are made, repetition of the same thought (or action) will stimulate more corresponding connections. These redundant connections become engrams, which are holographic stores of memories. These engrams involve a network of connections which facilitate synchronized synaptic firing thus producing a more efficient expression of a given thought. The more a thought is held, the easier for that thought remembered or activated. For instance, think of acquiring a new physical skill such as dancing or the martial arts or learning a new language.

Conversely there are thoughts or memories that have reached that level of engram efficiency, but are no longer rationally desired. This could be a phobic memory that somehow is hardwired into our survival mechanism. This means that this gestalt (a collection of memories) is connected to the hypothalamus and pituitary and thus creates neuropeptides, which in turn encode this memory at the cellular level. Therefore, any contrary thought will be resisted as our body will have a defensive reaction to the contrary feeling. So, how to be rid our self of these unwanted thoughts? How can be get out of our way?

Again, our will power is a key factor. But, often this is not enough. Obviously, if you follow the postulate of Hebbian Learning, you would say “use it or lose it.” If you could select a contrary (hopefully positive) thought, make it as vivid as possible, and have it recurring, you will biologically rewire your brain to develop new neural pathways while weakening the unwanted neural networks thought disuse.

Hypnosis is a great tool for helping bypass resistance and to install new thought patterns. However, repetition is still the key. Repeated hypnotherapy or self-hypnosis sessions can be used effectively to create new neural networks and to allow unwanted networks to atrophy.

Tim Brunson, PhD

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.


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