Oct 12 2007

Neurons that fire together, wire together

Did you ever wonder why parking garage elevators now have floors with certain music by famous singers?

The reason is probably obvious. It makes it easier for us to remember the floor where our car is parked.

But how do we remember? What are the specific mechanisms by which the floor where we are parked, the music and the singer are associated?

It has to do with the physical development of neurons and neural networks which associate and connect these specific memories. Whenever we experience something new, new neurons and neural networks develop and store memories of the newly learned experience.

For example, we have learned that touching a hot pot handle is painful. So, whenever we think of picking up a pot on the stove, we are careful to make sure we don’t burn ourselves. This is because the neurons and neural networks storing the memories of picking up a hot pot begin to “fire” in our brain, alerting us to be careful.

Another example is the people (I am one) who get very nauseas when they even think of riding on a spinning ride at an amusement park. They can see the image of the ride spinning, feel the movement of the ride, feel fearful, and start to become nauseas right away. Their neurons and neural networks storing these connected and associated memories are firing too!

Donald Hebbs, a neuropsychologist, showed that neurons and neural networks (where memory is stored) that fired together became associated and therefore “wired together.”


Hebbs said, “Let us assume that the persistence or repetition of a reverberatory activity (or “trace”) tends to induce lasting cellular changes that add to its stability.… When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.”


What does this mean? Probably that it would be great for us all to learn more about cell biology…but seriously, Hebbs Theory explains how different neurons and neural networks become associated. Since neurons and neural networks store memory, Hebbs Theory explains why the different aspects of memory become associated.

The different aspects of memory include:

  • Semantic …factual memory
  • Autobiographical…our sense of ourselves, who we are, at the time
  • Somatic…what our bodies felt like at the time
  • Perceptual…our sense of sight, smell, hearing, taste or touch
  • Emotional…how we felt at the time
  • Behavioral…what activity we were doing at the time

When we retrieve memories, we are accessing different neural networks that store all the different aspects of memory.


This is why some adults who grew up with parents drinking a lot, get nauseas, fearful, or angry when they smell alcohol.


Also, adults who were abused in some way by their parents may become very upset when they see a parent mistreating a child in a grocery store.


Adults who were sexually abused, may become upset or fearful when they think of themselves in an intimate relationship.


A wife who was emotionally and verbally abused by her father may have an intense angry or fearful reaction to a husband who raises his voice to her.


Even if the husband does not think that he is being hurtful, his wife’s neural networks store all sorts of memory from her experience with her father and these networks start “firing”, creating a powerful experience for the wife.


This is sometimes referred to as “re-experiencing” traumatic memories. It can be almost as if the wife is “re-experiencing” the abuse by her father at the time of the intense interaction with her husband.


So, our reactions to situations in the present are influenced by our memories and the various ways these neurons and neural networks have become associated with each other over time.


“What fires together, wires together…”

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