Hubel, David H.

The Five Senses and Beyond: The Encyclopedia of Perception - Jennifer L. Hellier 2017

Hubel, David H.

In 1981, Canadian neuroscientist David Hunter Hubel became a Nobel laureate and earned this award for his pioneering work in the visual system with Dr. Torsten N. Wiesel (1924—). Together, Drs. Hubel and Wiesel are considered the fathers of the visual system. They investigated how visual information is transmitted to and processed in the visual system as well as the structure and function of the visual cortex. In their most famous experiment, performed in 1959, Hubel and Wiesel placed electrodes in the primary visual cortex to record the brain activity of an anesthetized cat. They found that certain neurons were activated when specific patterns of light or light intensities were presented in front of the cat’s visual field. In addition, other sets of neurons would be activated when the edge of the light or moving light occurred in the visual field. From their experiments, Hubel and Wiesel were able to classify the different cell types as simple or complex cells as well as identify ocular columns in the visual cortex. Their results showed that simple stimuli (light, intensity, and movement) are processed in the visual cortex as a complex system used by all mammals. Hubel and Wiesel continued to work together for more than 20 years. Their research has improved our knowledge of how the senses, specifically sight, are processed in the brain. In fact, their partnership is discussed in their book titled Brain and Visual Perception: The Story of a 25-Year Collaboration (2005).

Hubel was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, in 1926. He became interested in science at a young age and was influenced by his father’s profession—electrical engineering. As a child, Hubel performed many chemical and engineering experiments, which eventually led him to study mathematics and physics at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. In 1954, Hubel graduated from McGill University School of Medicine and became a resident in neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. A few years later, Hubel was drafted into the army and served his term at Walter Reed Hospital, where he performed his first experiments in the visual cortices of cats. Then in 1958, he returned to Johns Hopkins and met Wiesel. This is when they began their collaboration. In Hubel and Wiesel’s next set of famous experiments, they blocked a kitten’s vision in one eye to learn how the developing brain processes vision. They found that the visual cortices of these cats had adapted so that the unaffected eye developed ocular columns in regions that would normally be developed by the blocked eye. In addition, they were able to better understand the irreversible critical period required for the development of binocular vision and ocular dominance in the primary visual cortex. This led to developing treatments for babies born with cataracts and strabismus (crossed eyes).

In 1959, Hubel joined the faculty at Harvard University. He was the John Franklin Enders University Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School for most of his career. Hubel died in Lincoln, Massachusetts, on September 22, 2013.

Jennifer L. Hellier

See also: Visual System; Wiesel, Torsten N.

Further Reading

Hubel, David H., & Torsten N. Wiesel. (2005). Brain and visual perception: The story of a 25-year collaboration. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.