Jack Orbach (2000) A Synthesis of Neuropsychology and a Science of Behavior?. Psycoloquy: 11(049) Lashley Hebb (17)

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Psycoloquy 11(049): A Synthesis of Neuropsychology and a Science of Behavior?

Reply to Catania on Orbach on Lashley-Hebb

Jack Orbach
Department of Psychology
Queens College
Flushing, NY, 11367 U.S.A.



I certainly welcome Catania's call for a rapprochement between neuropsychology and what he calls a science of behavior. Of course, I cannot speak for Lashley or Hebb.


cell assembly, central autonomous process, engram, equipotentiality, Hebb, Hebbian learning, Lashley, localization, memory trace, nativism, reverberatory circuit, Vanuxem Lectures
1. Catania's review (2000) of my Lashley-Hebb book (1998, 1999) blew me away by its fervor: not so much as a review of my book but as an indictment of Lashley and Hebb for not having followed the straight and narrow path to an operant analysis of behavior. In Catania's own words, "those unfamiliar with the properties of behavior will be at a disadvantage when they seek its sources in the brain, because they will not know what they should be looking for." Too often "Lashley and Hebb speculated about the nervous system without firm grounding in what was even then known about learning and behavior." (Abstract). "Two brilliant and influential researchers who failed to see the many ways in which the analysis of behavior" evolving at the same time as their own work, could have guided them to more coherent treatments of the issues with which they were concerned. Instead of moving from behavior to the nervous system, too often they moved in the other direction (paragraph 6).

2. Catania offers a brief summary of his own early research strategies to support the view that behavior always comes first. "Behavior has priority in the sense that it is the guide to what neuroscientists must look for in the brain" (paragraph 3). Perhaps so. But hold on - didn't Lashley base much of his neurologizing about the reduplicated memory trace in the cerebral cortex on the maze performance of the rat? Didn't Hebb spend years studying the emotional behavior of chimpanzees before he entertained his conception of the cell assembly? Catania's complaint cannot be that Lashley and Hebb didn't start with behavior. His complaint can only be that neither of these men subjected their behavioral observations to an operant analysis. I know that Lashley distrusted Skinner's early prescriptions because he appeared to banish neurologizing from psychology. "If you want to neurologize, become a biologist, don't call yourself a psychologist," was Skinner's message in those days. "Explanatory fictions" is what he called putative intra-organismic processes. As an undergraduate in the '40's, I heard the mnemonic slogan over and over again, "Skinner never goes beneath the skin." As late as 1947, I had to tackle a final examination question in MacLeod's Introductory Psychology class at McGill, "Can the Pavlovian conditioning paradigm serve as the model for all learning?" Operant conditioning was not yet seriously entertained. This was the zeitgeist that Lashley found himself in during the height of his career, in the 1930's and '40's. Operant conditioning as a method of training did not make an appearance at the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology until Charlie Ferster introduced it in 1955, just after Lashley had retired from the directorship of the Laboratories.

3. However, I believe that Catania overstates his case. Lashley spent much of his time early in his career struggling with what was then the cutting edge of behaviorism. By formal training he was a geneticist, and his first 30 publications, until 1917, were directed to genetic and behavioral problems. It might be instructive just to scan the titles of these papers. They can be found in chronological order at the end of a collection of his selected papers edited by Beach et al (1960). Two of them - on the behavior of the sooty and noddy terns and many other animals - were coauthored with John B. Watson, the father of behaviorism. Some of the 30 papers were directed to problems arising from the Pavlovian conditioned reflex paradigm. Similarly, Hebb's early work in Florida concerned emotional behavior of chimpanzees. Can we entertain the view that these researchers tried to neurologize without a background in the study of behavior to give them what they were neurologizing about?

4. I myself am not sure that behavior always comes first. Several examples from my own research career come to mind. In the course of my thesis research, I attempted to train two monkeys on an auditory locus discrimination using an operant technique - buzzer to the left, respond to the left; buzzer to the right, respond to the right. After thousands of trials and no success, I reported to Lashley that I had two deaf monkeys. With a smile, Lashley quickly demonstrated informally that both monkeys were quite capable of hearing. "They have the peripheral and central mechanisms for hearing, why shouldn't they hear?" It is not clear to me that, in this case, the study of behavior should be given priority. The second example is more telling. Together with many other researchers, I was unable to demonstrate color discrimination in cats. Should we have concluded that cats are color blind? Retinal and brain anatomy suggest that cats should be sensitive to color. Why can't we demonstrate color discrimination behaviorally? Are our behavioral methods deficient? Or don't cats pay attention to color? The question is still open. Again, it is not clear to me that the study of behavior should be given priority. It seems to me that the ideal would be that studies of behavior and brain function proceed together, in lock step so that they help each other.

5. I have myself used operant conditioning techniques on rats, cats, monkey's and chimpanzees to great advantage throughout my research career. But my research on the curious reversibility of the Necker cube left me stumped. What are these perspective reversals a function of? Of time? But isn't all behavior a function of time? I finally asked: What factors influence reversal rate? That question turned out to be more fruitful. It was only after I began to think of a neural switching mechanism that I began to understand why a steady stimulus like the Necker cube can produce two different responses. Applying an operant perspective did not help. But I am not too old to learn. I invite Catania to help me with this problem.

6. Responding to Catania's review, which is less a review of my book and more an instructive lesson in Skinnerian-Catanian psychology, I feel that I am tilting with a religion and this I know to be futile. But I am with Catania all the way when he says "We know much more (today), and neuroscience and the science of behavior have each reached a point at which a modern synthesis holds great promise" (Abstract). He is certainly not the first to advocate this. Already in the 1950's, Pribram was advocating just that from the neuropsychological point of view. In this respect, Lashley, Hebb, and possibly even Skinner, belong to a bygone era.

7. From my perspective, a collaborative effort would do well to avoid assigning priorities to one of the parties. Assigning priorities is more likely to hinder the collaborative effort. Cross-fertilization is more likely to occur if the parties are seen to be co-equal.

8. I thank Catania for his very stimulating and informative review.


Beach, F. A., Hebb, D. O., Morgan, C. T. and Nissen, H. W. (1960) The Neuropsychology of Lashley. NY: McGraw-Hill.

Catania, A. C. (2000). From behavior to the brain and back again. PSYCOLOQUY 11(027) ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Psycoloquy/2000.volume.11/ psyc.00.11.027.lashley-hebb.14.catania http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?11.027

Orbach, J. (1998) The Neuropsychological Theories of Lashley and Hebb. MD: University Press of America.

Orbach, J. (1999) Precis of: "The Neuropsychological Theories of Lashley and Hebb." PSYCOLOQUY 10(029) ftp://ftp.princeton.edu/pub/harnad/Psycoloquy/1999.volume.10/ psyc.00.10.029.lashley-hebb.1.orbach http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/cgi/psyc/newpsy?10.029

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