On Scholarpedia they introduce STDP (spike timing dependent plasticity) as a temporally asymmetric form of Hebbian learning, making it sound as if the original Hebbian rule still has relevance in neuroscience. On the wiki page on Hebbian theory, however, it seems SDTP and Hebbian theory are pretty much synonyms.

Do all cases of neuron types that were previously thought to follow the Hebbian learning rule (fire together, wire together) actually follow the STDP rule? If not, are there statistics about how often each learning rule occurs in the brain?

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    $\begingroup$ I think the edit did make the question clearer. Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – Lenar Hoyt
    Jun 23, 2016 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ The answer is no, STDP is not the same as Hebb's rule. Both are used to achieve different purposes in modeling papers. As for the physiology, interpretation of LTP stimulation protocols is very contentious, so I would say neither STDP or Hebb's rule is 100% verified as literal fact. $\endgroup$
    – honi
    Jun 23, 2016 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @honi - I'd turn that into an answer! $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jun 23, 2016 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ unfortunately, i don't have citations for those assertions $\endgroup$
    – honi
    Jun 23, 2016 at 23:39

1 Answer 1


Short answer
Just like Mendel's ideas have been proven by the existence of DNA, Hebbian learning can be explained by STDP. That doesn't make Mendel's or Hebb's teachings obsolete.

STDP is the long-term synaptic potentiation or depression governed by the timing of pre- and post synaptic cell firing. STDP depends on certain “critical windows” for spike timing. This critical window is on the order of tens of milliseconds (Dan & Poo, 2004). STDP is known for quite some time, but is by far a more novel idea than the idea of Hebbian learning posed in the 1940's (Markram et al., 2012). Hebbian learning has been popularly described as:

["C]ells that fire together, wire together.” In other words, if things keep happening more or less simultaneously, you may assume that there is a common cause for the firing. More importantly, if one of the cell is active systematically just slightly before another, the firing of the first one might have a causal link to the firing of the second one and this causal link could be remembered by increasing the wiring of connections, a notion we call synaptic plasticity. In short, timing matters because it may indicate causality.

In other words, Hebbian learning is mediated by STDP. Thus STDP may explain how Hebbian learning may come to exist.

But Markram et al. caution:

...this is not to say that STDP has been a panacea for all problems neuroscientific. Clearly cells that fire together wire together, there is no doubt about that, so the coming of STDP has not rendered the classical literature obsolete by any means.

In other words, Hebbian learning is more of a theoretical construct whereas STDP provides a neurophysiological explanation. Just like Mendel's ideas have been proven by the existence of DNA, and Darwin's ideas by a since buildup of fossil records, Hebbian learning has been explained by STDP, but that doesn't make Darwin nor Mendel's teachings obsolete.

- Dan & Poo, Neuron (2004); 44(1): 23-30
- Markram et al., Front Synaptic Neurosci (2012); 4: 2

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    $\begingroup$ I think another analogy would be Newton/Einstein: relativity (STDP) does sort of supersede Newton's laws (Hebbian plasticity), but the latter is still a perfectly acceptable way of understanding the general order of things, until you get to very fine details. I guess that analogy breaks down a bit once you start talking about other forms of Hebbian plasticity that need not involve STDP per se, but that's why its just an analogy :-P $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:13

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